The sad death of that brilliant star Obi-Wan Kenobi

It's a curse of the actor's life - fame and fortune can be guaranteed to arrive with a fatuous part'
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The Independent Online

THE BBC'S Ceefax service was well on top of yesterday's news, wildly reporting the death of Sir Alec Guinness in terms guaranteed to make Reith turn in his grave. The great actor had given his all, and all that occurred to the public-service broadcaster to report of his career was "Obi-Wan Kenobi, among many top roles".

THE BBC'S Ceefax service was well on top of yesterday's news, wildly reporting the death of Sir Alec Guinness in terms guaranteed to make Reith turn in his grave. The great actor had given his all, and all that occurred to the public-service broadcaster to report of his career was "Obi-Wan Kenobi, among many top roles".

Guaranteed to annoy the ghost of Sir Alec, too. Though he made a fat wad from the Star Wars films, after signing a deal that guaranteed him 2 per cent of the profits, he is supposed to have loathed the movies so much that any fan letter that so much as mentioned them was thrown away unread.

He was constantly plagued to the end by gormless adolescents who, apparently, were always bursting into his hospital room and demanding that he say, "May the Force be with you" in ringing tones. Poor man. Years of mastery, of endlessly subtle insights into the great classical roles and of refined, virtuoso performances, and what you are remembered for by the great mass of mankind is a performance you could, frankly, have telephoned in.

It's a great curse of the actor's life. There is almost a rule that fame and fortune can be guaranteed to arrive with the fatuous part, the two-day cameo, and something the actor can hardly bear to watch afterward.

When John Gielgud died, the best that one tabloid newspaper could do was "Dudley Moore's butler dies", referring to a faded farce 20 years back. And advertising, however cynically undertaken, has a habit of swallowing what were once serious reputations. At the end of his life, Orson Welles was surely known not for The Magnificent Ambersons or Chimes at Midnight, but as the fat bloke in a cape, advertising sherry. No wonder that many actors will now advertise products only if they can stipulate that the commercial be shown exclusively in faraway places, usually Japan.

It is said, too, that Rowan Atkinson, perceiving how universally popular his Mr Bean comedies were going to prove, stipulated that they should not be sold to certain countries, so that he could have somewhere to go on holiday without being endlessly harassed by people demanding that he do the silly walk.

But it must always be annoying to be known and recognised for one particular part, however various the actor's subsequent achievements. I have seen Derek Jacobi in dozens of things, but his face always calls I, Claudius to mind, and that must be more than 20 years ago. Beautifully timed though the great Prunella Scales's performance in Fawlty Towers was, it must be tiresome ceaselessly to be reminded of one thing from a quarter of a century ago, when she has never stopped working since then.

A week or two ago, I had to resist the temptation to go up to an actress I recognised in a restaurant, Jacqueline Pearce, and tell her how much I loved her Servalan, mistress of the universe in Blake's7, when I was a sixth-former. Poor woman, she's certainly done better things since then, and all people want her to do is put on a white nylon kaftan and hiss at her minions.

In music, the hit tune of a composer is rarely the lasting achievement. In his lifetime, Beethoven's biggest successes were the Septet, which grew so embarrassingly popular that in later life he always winced when it was mentioned, and Wellington's Victory, a completely absurd farrago of battle effects, national anthems and rousing march tunes. Neither is much heard now. It seems odd, too, that Sibelius's main fame in his lifetime came not from his symphonies, but from a nice little salon piece called Valse Triste, very rarely heard these days. And Rachmaninov, as far as millions were concerned, was not a serious symphonist but the author of a heartwrenching Prelude in C sharp minor.

It seems churlish to complain afterwards about these popular successes. I suppose every creative artist would love to achieve most success with his most carefully prepared account of himself, but it's more likely to be the blunt slogan that pulls in the punters. It was a book he wrote in a week, Rasselas, that brought Dr Johnson most fame in his lifetime.

If nothing else, the artist can console himself with the new-found millions that a catchy tune or easily showy performance has brought him, and build big walls between himself and the rancid multitudes. The audience can always move on from those popular triumphs; how many people have fallen in love with the Valse Triste and ended up loving the mysteriously inward Sixth Symphony of Sibelius? How many children have gazed in awe at Alec Guinness's half-attentive Obi-Wan Kenobi and, years later, greeted the astonishing virtuoso turns of Kind Hearts and Coronets with an amazed sense of recognition?

hensherp@dircon.co.uk

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