Alan Brien: Witty, intelligent journalist and author of 'Lenin: the novel'
Saturday 31 May 2008
In the late 1950s The Spectator was going through a golden period. Brian Inglis, editor of the weekly current affairs journal, had gathered round him a sparkling galaxy of writers who made it compulsory reading for anyone wanting to understand how Britain was throwing off the restrictions and inhibitions of the immediate post-war period.
Alan Brien was a pivotal member of this all-star team that included Bernard Levin, Henry Fairlie and Katharine Whitehorn. He served as the drama critic, but wrote on many other topics with a combination of wit, intelligence, directness, social concern and a keen sense of the ridiculous. Although the magazine was owned by Ian Gilmour, a Conservative MP, it was then more radical in outlook than its stodgy left-wing rival, the New Statesman. Whatever the politics of the paper he was writing for, Brien always counted himself a socialist.
As with most of his colleagues, his stint at The Spectator, then housed at Gower Street, served as the springboard for a career in which he worked for several of London's principal journals and newspapers. He was hired in 1961 as theatre critic for the newly launched Sunday Telegraph, on the personal initiative of Lord Hartwell, the paper's proprietor. (Nearly 20 years later he showed commendable loyalty to his erstwhile patron by refusing to write a hostile profile of Hartwell for Sir James Goldsmith's short-lived magazine Now!)
In six years on the Telegraph, Brien was twice named Critic of the Year in the Hannen Swaffer Awards, precursor of the British Press Awards. He was also writing regular columns for a succession of Fleet Street titles – the Daily Mail, Sunday Dispatch and Sunday Pictorial – before returning to The Spectator as a freelance columnist, later switching to the revived New Statesman.
In 1967 he left the Telegraph for the burgeoning Sunday Times – one of the earliest recruits of the new editor, Harold Evans. It was there that he did his most eye-catching work, for eight years writing a provocative, gossipy back-page column that many readers turned to first as they picked up their paper on a Sunday. He was sent on the occasional overseas foray, including short stints in Moscow and Saigon – but it was as a sharp observer of the domestic social and cultural scene that he made his most distinctive mark. In 1976 he gave up the column to become the paper's film critic, a post he filled with distinction and perception until 1984.
All this amounted to an unlikely career course for the son of a Sunderland tram driver. Alan was the youngest of five children of Ernest Brien and Isabella, née Patterson, who came from of a family of 13. Educated at Bede Grammar School in Sunderland, he joined the Royal Air Force as an air gunner when he was 18. On leaving the service in 1947 he went up to Jesus College, Oxford, where he read English and became part of coterie of undergraduates who would go on to make their mark in the media – Robert Robinson, Robin Day, James (later Jan) Morris, Kenneth Tynan, Kenneth Harris, Godfrey Smith, Keith Kyle – as well as budding politicians such as Shirley Williams, Michael Heseltine, Jeremy Thorpe and Tony Benn.
It was also in 1947 that he married the first of his four wives: Pamela Jones, a Home Counties hairdresser, with whom he had three daughters. His first job in journalism was on a film magazine, Mini-Cinema, and that set the course for much of his later career as a critic of the performing arts. By 1953 he was writing on film for the weekly magazine Truth, and in 1954 he became one of The Observer's earliest television critics. He was also the film critic of the London Evening Standard, until in 1956 the Standard appointed him New York correspondent and gave him his own column. It was this that led Brian Inglis to invite him on to his Spectator team.
In 1961 he married Nancy Ryan, an American theatre producer, and they had a son and daughter. Then, in 1973 he left her for the feminist writer Jill Tweedie, and – despite the fact that she wrote rather harshly about him ("He reminds me of an old warthog I once saw in an African twilight") – they were still together when she died in 1993. Three years after her death he married Jane Hill, a writer. In an affectionate address at his funeral his daughter Joanna, one of twins from his first marriage, commented: "Each marriage was the best."
He was gregarious and, again quoting Joanna, "had a huge appetite for life, love and all its sensual pleasures, none too small to be written about". A sharp if mordant wit was a principal feature both of his journalism and his conversation. In 1964 he was being threatened with a libel action by Lord Beaverbrook, the newspaper magnate, over something he had written in one of his columns. At a theatre opening night, as he was sharing a drink with fellow critics, one of them relayed the news that Beaverbrook had just died. Brien was jubilant. "I feel," he declared, "as though someone just told me that Agincourt has been called off."
He was always an optimist: in his Who's Who entry for 2000 (amended in later years) he listed four publications in his name, but only two were ever published. They were Domes of Fortune (1979), an extended illustrated essay about women's breasts, and Lenin: the novel (1987). The latter was an immensely ambitious documentary novel of more than 700 pages, which had a mixed reception. An appalled reviewer for the New York Times criticised him for "language no Russian intellectual would use", quoting as an example: "That's what it is, we have been booted up the arse."
The two works which remained unpublished – because he failed to finish them – were an autobiography, to be called "All Right for Some", and a novel about the fall of Rome. The latter was nearly completed when, in 2001, he was diagnosed with Lewy body disease, a degenerative condition that affects both mental and physical functions. The symptoms were spasmodic but over time they worsened and he was never fit enough to finish work on the book.
In his last years Brien was cared for by his wife in their home at Highgate, north London, where he continued to entertain friends and former colleagues with enthusiasm and generosity. In January of this year he moved to Denville Hall, a home near London for those needing full-time care.
Alan Brien, journalist and writer: born Sunderland, Co Durham 12 March 1925; associate editor, Mini-Cinema 1950-52; associate editor, Courier 1952-53; film critic and columnist, Truth 1953-54; TV critic, The Observer 1954-55; film critic, Evening Standard 1954-56, columnist 1956-58; drama critic and features editor, The Spectator 1958-61, columnist 1963-65; columnist, Daily Mail 1958-62; drama critic, Sunday Telegraph 1961-67; columnist, Sunday Dispatch 1962-63; political columnist, Sunday Pictorial 1963-64; columnist, New Statesman 1966-72; columnist, Punch 1972-84; diarist, Sunday Times 1967-75, film critic 1976-84; married 1947 Pamela Jones (died 1998; three daughters; marriage dissolved), 1961 Nancy Ryan (died 1987; one son, one daughter; marriage dissolved), 1973 Jill Tweedie (died 1993), 1996 Jane Hill; died Northwood, Middlesex 23 May 2008.
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