Osborne hits back from beyond grave

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Arts Reporter

He was an angry young man, angry in middle age and an angry old man. But yesterday, John Osborne carried his feuds into uncharted territory - taking revenge from beyond the grave.

As the cream of the theatrical world trooped into St Giles-in-the-Fields church, in central London, for the playwright's memorial service, the epilogue in the Osborne drama was played out.

Outside was pinned a small handwritten notice, in a broken picture frame, which read: "Memorial service for John Osborne. The undermentioned will NOT be admitted - Fu Manchu, Nicholas de Jongh, Albert Finney, the Bard of Hay on Wye."

A difficult start, but the show must go on.

Dame Maggie Smith rose to the occasion with a reading from The Pilgrim's Progress, Richard Griffiths read Shakespeare and David Hare gave a gracious address testifying to Osborne's endless kindness and charm.

It seemed a little odd given that the blacklisted four - Sir Peter Hall (Fu Manchu), former director of the National Theatre; Nicholas de Jongh, theatre critic on the London Evening Standard; Albert Finney, the actor; and the playwright Arnold Wesker (the Bard of Hay on Wye) - were just a handful of the many people Osborne had publicly denigrated in his lifetime.

This was the man who described the suicide of his ex-wife, Jill Bennett, as the "coarse posturing of an overheated housemaid", his mother Nellie as "totally self-absorbed", and his daughter Nolan as "insolently smug" and "devotedly suburban".

Sir Peter, flying back from Los Angeles, was unavailable to explain what had so upset the author of Look Back in Anger, who died of a heart attack on Christmas Eve, aged 65.

But Finney is said to have incurred his wrath by pestering him for royalties, while Wesker annoyed his widow, Helen, by recalling that at their last meeting Osborne had been drunk and crude.

In fact, Mrs Osborne wrote to the Guardian, he was not inebriated but ill. "Only someone with the hide of Wesker could fail to spot the difference," she added cuttingly.

Mr de Jongh, apart from being a member of a profession that Osborne enjoyed insulting and liked to send poison-pen letters, made the mistake of suggesting in an article that the playwright was a repressed homosexual.

Yesterday, he accepted his blackballing with grace. "I'm flattered to be in such distinguished company," the critic said.

"I wonder if Helen Osborne had contact with him after death in some seance, because the article I wrote was published after his death."

The polite consensus at yesterday's service attended by the likes of Lord Gowrie, Sir Dirk Bogarde, Melvyn Bragg, Sir Robin Day and Lord Snowdon, was that the note was a joke by Mrs Osborne.

But Mr Wesker may be pondering the prescience of his recent comments. "There will be a lot of nonsense talked about Osborne and there will be a lot of people who will get their sour revenges. But when all this is over I hope it will all be put in perspective.

"I've had the odd written altercation with him and I did once call him the portly raver of Edenbridge, but beyond that we only had the ordinary animosities he maintained with theatre critics."