REVIEW / Bringing in Bond to fight the blooming soap

Thomas Sutcliffe
Monday 11 April 1994 23:02

I seem to remember a Spitting Image sketch in which a rubbery version of Sir John Gielgud intoned poetry while someone poked at him from the wings with a broomstick. It was a running joke - on would come the wobbly Sir John, voice tremulous with diction, and then an unseen hand would attempt to stem the flow or to hook him offscreen. The sketch didn't appear in Omnibus's mostly reverential trot through Gielgud's nine decades in the theatre, though they did acknowledge in a more formal way that his style had gone out of fashion at one point. More interestingly, Gielgud himself recognised the dangerous perishability of any acting style, listening to an early recording of himself and observing, with nice diplomacy, that 'it sounds to me very voice- conscious'.

This was good mannered of him. Modesty can be a very self-advertising virtue but Gielgud's here is the real thing - an unfussy observation that, for an actor, a recorded performance can only hope to preserve what we least want preserved - the manners of the time. The spirit of the thing evaporates.

Gielgud opened the programme with a little speech (like others in the programme it sounded written out rather than spontaneous) in which he confessed to his envy of painters and writers: 'I have often thought how happy they must be to do their work in private, at home, unkempt and unobserved, able to destroy, or renew or improve their creations at will'.

I doubt if the ability pick your nose as you work is really what animates him here - it is the fact that paintings and novels, if they last, mature with age. Theatrical genius on the other hand is a flower which begins to dry and discolour as soon as the curtain drops. Indeed it is one of the cruelties of the stage that your best shot at immortality lies in the hands of your critics - a fact that video and film haven't really done much to change. 'To see him act' said Coleridge of Edmund Kean, 'is like reading Shakespeare by flashes of lightning'. But if we had film of Kean acting we probably wouldn't know where to look for embarrassment.

So, as unsatisfactory as it was, Omnibus probably offered the best you could get - recollections of distinguished fans (John Mortimer, Harold Pinter and Peter Hall among others) and the undiscriminating adoration of theatrical colleagues. These were evidence for an actor of exceptional decorum and verbal precision, a man who used his star status to bring Shakespeare into the West End. His style was described as Romantic by several speakers but it appeared quite the opposite in the clips and recordings here - which showed a senatorial presence who seemed to have disciplined the passions by means of rhetoric. 'He's probably best known now for his quintessential English screen performances, like the butler in Arthur' said Kenneth Branagh at the beginning of the programme. This didn't exactly sound promising as an epitaph for a great Shakespearean actor - but it contained an element of truth. Where some celebrated actors are houseguests from hell, all temperament and torment, Gielgud is the perfect domestic servant - bearing the text before him with exemplary carriage and never spilling a drop.

'Living in a Boom Time' looked like a DIY documentary, filmed on a home- video and narrated by the cameraman with undisguised committment to his subjects. I think this rather misses the point of lightweight video, which is surely that it gives people the opportunity to present their own lives (with all the artifice that involves) rather than just run one-man film crews. But, that apart, . . . . .'s passionate film was a useful reminder of the distress and anxiety faced by the 1000 families every week whose homes are repossessed. Both families here were victims of the Right to Buy, a nationwide con-trick that has probably disrupted more lives than timeshare salesmen.

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