How Sir John (90 not out) stumped them with the Bard

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FROM Arthur Nugent Esq:

Sir, Further to recent tributes to Sir John Gielgud on his 90th birthday, may I be allowed to reminisce for a moment?

It is not often realised that in his earlier days he was an unusually keen cricketer, and in the Thirties he would often turn out for the theatrical team of which I was proud to be a member, the Shaftesbury Avenue Casuals.

Actors are often devotees of cricket, not so much because they are temperamentally drawn to the game as because they tend to be more free in the afternoons than members of other professions. We very often played against other thespian XIs, including the Back Stage Boys, the Friends of Noel Coward, the ex-Friends of Laurence Olivier, the Critics XI (always a needle match, that]) and the Twelfth Men, which was a team restricted entirely to understudies. I may say that even in such all-theatrical surroundings, Gielgud still stood out as a bit of a character and a man apart.

I remember very well that his favourite position was in the slips, as this meant he had no great distance to walk between overs. Very often, in fact, he would fail to cross over between overs and would forgetfully stay where he was, which by now was right behind the umpire.

Not only would his proximity slightly discountenance the umpire, but Gielgud would often forget that he was in a cricket match and try to strike up conversation with the umpire at the most inopportune moment, with remarks such as: 'What does one have to do to get a drink at this awful party?' or 'Excuse me, doctor, but will I have to wait much longer to be seen?' On one occasion he was overheard handing his pullover to the umpire with the words: 'You wouldn't have this in a slightly larger size, would you?'

His fielding was ineffectual but remarkable. His reflexes were unexpectedly speedy, and if the ball came towards him he would instantly lean away from it and make a dramatic gesture in the other direction as if fainting, or falling in love. One night, when he was in Hamlet at the old Haymarket, I remember he made one of these same emotive gestures when the ghost of his father first appeared, and as several of his cricketing team mates happened to be in the audience, there was a spontaneous shout from the direction of the stalls of 'How's that?'.

His knowledge of the laws of cricket was legendary, and he could hold us spellbound for hours on end with his recitations from the sub-sections concerning the use of the heavy roller. I remember on one occasion we had appealed loudly for a run-out which had not elicited any reaction from the umpire, when Gielgud stepped forward and declaimed imperiously:

Oh man of stone] Look now upon the crease

And tell me where you saw the grounding of the bat.

No, never was that bat upon the

hallowed ground

When, speeding like a swallow that does homeward fly

Or wend it way to Egypt for its hols,

There came the ball which broke the standing stumps.

First came the ball, then after came the bat,

As surely as the sun is out at dawn

Or as the rose is out at height of noon

This man was out like them. Look, see him blush

He cannot meet your eye, because he knows full well

That he has failed to ground his bat in time.

Oh, let me pluck my eyes from out their place

And make me blind to all that's in

the world,

Yet shall I never be as blind as this man here,

This man with six small pebbles in his pocket,

This man weighed down with other men's cliches,

This umpire . . .

And much more in the same vein. The umpire was quite unmoved, but the batsman promptly burst into tears, admitted he had been run out, and walked back to the pavilion. It is the first and probably the last time in the history of cricket there has ever been a standing ovation for an appeal.

I later asked him how he had acquired the knack of improvising in Shakespearean style, but he said it was a speech he had prepared and memorised for moments when he could not remember his lines. He had used it in Julius Caesar, Macbeth and The Merry Wives of Windsor, and no one had ever spotted it except his fellow actors and a now dead drama critic on the Sunday Express, who had become very excited at discovering references to cricket in a Shakespeare play and had subsequently written a book called Our Batsman Bard, which no one had bought.

Yours etc

If any other reader has vivid memories of Sir John Gielgud, could they please keep them to themselves.