Helen Osborne

Fifth wife of John Osborne and fierce guardian of his memory
Click to follow

Helen Dawson, journalist: born Newcastle upon Tyne 11 March 1939; married 1978 John Osborne (died 1994); died Shrewsbury 12 January 2004.

Helen Osborne was a woman of enormous courage. When told she had cancer, she said: "It's my fault. I know it. Too much drink and too many cigarettes." It was this utterly matter-of-fact approach to all things that had first endeared her to her husband, the playwright John Osborne, of whom she was the fifth, and best-loved, wife.

When he lay dying, nine years earlier, he had told her, referring to their house in Shropshire: "Hang on to it as long as you can." In spite of mountainous debts, this was precisely what she did, long enough for it to be restored in 2002 by the Arvon Foundation and with a grant from the Lottery as a place of learning and contemplation for aspiring writers and playwrights. The John Osborne Centre at the Hurst, opened last March by Dame Maggie Smith, is as much a testament to Helen's tenacity as it is to John's genius.

For genius it was, and it was Helen Osborne who saw to it more than anyone else that this fact was brought constantly to the attention of the public at large and the theatrical fraternity in particular. It took courage for her to post a list outside the church door at John Osborne's London memorial service in June 1995 of those to be refused admittance - critics, mostly, and Arnold Wesker, who had written that Osborne's diabetes was just an excuse for his drunken behaviour; such riff-raff, said Helen, were not welcome.

She railed ceaselessly against those who sought to deny John's genius, and her battle against a Channel 4 documentary broadcast in 2002, full of innuendo that John Osborne had actually been a closet gay, was merely the last of a long line. "How the literary vultures picked my husband's bones", was an earlier invective published in The Sunday Telegraph. A biography by one Peter Whitebrook serialised by a newspaper in 1997 was dismissed as a "scissors-and-paste felony".

It took courage for her to nurse her husband through his blackest moods, even cancelling his 60th birthday celebration; he just could not face it. John Osborne had come to believe, with some justification, that he had been rejected by a profession whose debt to him was beyond measure. It took courage for Helen to abandon her own career, as a successful journalist, and devote herself to a man whose career by the 1970s had plunged towards inconsequence. And it took courage to bring him painstakingly back to that in which he excelled, writing, for it was under her guidance that one of the greatest autobiographies of the 20th century (published in two volumes, A Better Class of Person, 1981, and Almost a Gentleman, 1991) and one last, great play, Déjàvu (1991), came to be written. He owed her, and he knew it, and to see them together, as I did on many occasions, was to reaffirm one's belief in the idea and fact of love. And to love, wholly and unhesitatingly as she did, takes courage.

Her courage was born of toughness, perhaps from her upbringing in Newcastle upon Tyne and Alnwick, a broken home, boarding school in Yorkshire, and thence to Durham University, where she read History and worked on a university newspaper edited by Hunter Davies. After a year at Brown in the United States, she joined The Observer in 1962, eventually becoming its Arts Editor. Her seven years' reign there is unparalleled in recent newspaper history, for among her writers were Kenneth Tynan, George Melly, Penelope Gilliatt (then married to John Osborne), John Heilpern (now finishing a definitive biography of Osborne) and Peter Heyworth, all tough nuts themselves but somehow moulded into a single, opinionated, authoritative voice which commanded attention like no other arts pages at the time or since.

When she was replaced by the Observer's Editor, David Astor (as he explained, to "make way for a male colleague who had a wife and two children to support"), her fury masked a great and understandable hurt. Her subsequent and all-too-brief stint attempting to bash the administration of the new National Theatre into some sort of coherence brought her into contact with John Osborne, by then thrashing around in his latest marriage, to the actress Jill Bennett. Soon, Helen Dawson (as she then was) and John Osborne were living openly together, and when, three years later, in 1977 he obtained a divorce from Bennett, they soon afterwards travelled to a register office in the local fishmonger's van and were married.

And so began a professional and personal partnership that lasted for almost 20 years, almost as long as his previous four marriages put together. They were an odd couple: he lanky, elegant, gentle (despite his unjustified "angry" reputation), insecure; she short, wiry, waspish, seemingly unglamorous, feisty - but "two peas in a pod", she often said.

Both adored champagne, dogs and horses. When not transcribing John Osborne's spindly, often illegible handwriting, Helen was to be found at Ludlow racecourse. Both hated bureaucracy and humbug (the one often an excuse for the other), vegetarians, campaigning non-smokers, the politics of this "poodle country" and the postcode. I doubt if she knew what the postcode was for their house to her dying day.

Both treasured the Book of Common Prayer and the King James Bible, and the abandonment of these works by the Church of England was viewed by them with contempt. John thought that the C of E had become a branch of Butlins; Helen believed that God's majesty was manifest in The Word. For the love of language and its rich inheritance was what bound them together. No wonder their columns for The Spectator and, after John died in 1994, Helen's acerbic and witty book reviews - often with the footnote "The fee for this article is going to the Helen Osborne Survival Fund" - became required reading for those who relished the English language. As John Osborne (or was it Helen?) says in Déjàvu: "Language! That only is goodness . . . life, triumph, victory and dominion. " They both believed that, and it was Helen who made sure that John Osborne's voice was not lost.

When they first married, they lived near Edenbridge in Kent, where their annual garden parties became a fixed point in the social calendar. Grandees from the theatre and film worlds mixed with the local vicar and candlestick-maker, a jazz band playing what sounded like the collected works of Max Miller, all presided over by Squire Osborne in his striped blazer, cigarette holder and glass of champagne. But it was Helen who made one feel welcome, part of the family. The racket of the nearby Gatwick Airport finally drove them out, to Shropshire and to the Clun valley, praised by A.E. Housman.

Their house, when it was found for them by the wife of the playwright Peter Nichols, was a wreck - abandoned, unloved, bereft. Over the years, Helen made it a sanctuary, warm and comforting, the home that John Osborne had lacked possibly all his life. She embroidered a cushion for his study. It read: "It is difficult to soar like an eagle when you are surrounded by turkeys."

The years of widowhood, however, were hard to bear. "There are no road maps in this blasted landscape," she wrote. "Death is not divorce." She visited Osborne's grave every day; its inscription - "Playwright, actor and friend" - had been her idea. She will be buried next to the man whom in life she adored, and of whose memory she was the fiercest guardian. She once told me that her most treasured possession was an empty cigarette packet Osborne left by his bedside in the hospital where he died. On it, he had scribbled: "I have sinned."

Osborne had died at Christmas. The house where they had first found happiness together, despite their not having children, which they both had wanted, was called Christmas Place. And it was at Christmas that Helen Osborne first learned she had inoperable cancer. During her last weekend at the Hurst, she sat in the kitchen, stroking the dogs, smiling across the Clun valley, absolutely at peace, serene almost, knowing I am sure that her job was done, and done well.

Tony Palmer

Warm memories of Helen Osborne have inevitably centred on her loyal partnership with her husband, writes Sir David Hare, so it's easy to forget that she was, briefly, as Helen Dawson, one of the best drama critics of her time.

When I first started working in the theatre in the late 1960s, the shadow of Kenneth Tynan fell unhappily across his successors on The Observer, a few of whom struggled, without much distinction, to achieve similar impact by striking similar attitudes. But Helen took an opposite route. She wrote not from the point of view of an obsessive or an habituée, but rather as someone who was as interested in the world at large as she was in the theatre. She judged what happened on stage by what she had learnt from off it. This is still a surprisingly rare approach in the arts, and it provided Helen with a style which was lucid, calm and discerning.

It was inevitable, perhaps, that she wouldn't do the job for long. In retrospect, Helen was always waiting to meet the man with whom she formed a cast-iron alliance. From their house in Kent, the two of them took over the historic function of giving the best theatrical party of the summer, on a scale which took everyone aback. There were jazz bands, marquees and champagne, and, unless John could be dissuaded, joke-telling competitions. Their special pleasure was to match you off with the most unsuitable guest possible and then leave you. I remember a particularly bloody half-hour with a famous novelist whose complete absence of social skills equalled my own. Our hosts, meanwhile, were in heaven.

When they moved to the Welsh borders, then there was no doubt that this was, for John at least, Waugh-like retreat. But Helen continued with shrewd book reviews for The Spectator and The Sunday Telegraph, which carried no sniff of withdrawal. Her sense of humour, which was always uppermost, expressed her view of life. Shortly after John's death, on her daily visit to his grave, Helen quietly broke the news to him of Alan Ayckbourn's recent knighthood. She told me afterwards that she felt such rumbling from under the earth that she did not dare go on to report, from the same Honours List, on Andrew Lloyd Webber's elevation to the peerage.

Now Helen is to be buried beside John, where she belongs, in the same Shropshire graveyard. Wit is rare, and witty couples are rarer. Each was the flint, and each the stone. Helen never telephoned without your feeling cheered up after, and you never saw her without wanting to see her again.