I need to be reminded I was once alive: John Osborne is still looking back in anger - even though the Sixties are long ago and London is far away

Hunter Davies
Monday 25 April 1994 23:02

John is not feeling so good today said his wife, Helen, picking me up at the local railway station. More of a halt really, miles from anywhere, on the Shropshire-Wales border. She looked a bit tired herself, but then being Mrs John Osborne has always been a fairly exciting business. She's the fifth, and by far the longest-standing. They married in 1978. Helen Dawson, as was. Used to be arts editor of the Observer. Slender, bright, witty, organised. Just as well. A fortunate feller, old Osborne.

Their large, Regency house, set on a wooded hillside, looked a bit grim and forbidding from the outside. Helen said it was lack of money, which I ignored. Inside, it was light, friendly, attractive, cared for. Good furniture, fine paintings, amusing memorabilia. And warm. Not the sort of country house where they crouch in front of one log and you freeze if you move. The Osbornes know how to make themselves comfortable. Excellent champagne, prompt at 12.30. That's the way to do it.

All the same, why do they do it, these people, retreating to the country, to a place where they have no connections? John is 64, not in great nick. The country is perfect for your prime, when you are carrying work inside you. You need peace to get it out. After that, surely town is more stimulating, with more friends, better doctors, better facilities? 'Oh, we love it here,' said Helen. Flatly, I thought. No, John wasn't riding at present, though they still have two old horses. No, he hadn't gone for many walks recently, though she did twice a day, with Barnum and Bailey, their liver-coloured labradors.

The Master was stirring. Slowly down the stairs. This morning, he'd wanted to cancel me, but Helen said I'd be on my way. On his 60th, she had to cancel a birthday party for 80 at the last moment, as he wasn't up to it. Helen hovered as he got near.

Enter left, neat cravat round his neck, country pully, slightly camp intonation, though later this faded slightly and I could hear West London overtones, hinting back to his impoverished boyhood. Totally charming, doing his Noel Coward bit. He inquired solicitously about my train, and kept coming back to the topic, as if he'd just bought Paddington and was jolly concerned about his staff's performance.

Eight years they've been here. Before that a handsome house in Kent, till he woke up one day, said he couldn't stand listening to the Gatwick planes any more, the M25 was too near, it was no longer the real countryside. 'Helen was horrified. She didn't want to leave her friends, but I had to get out.'

Their friend and fellow playwright Peter Nichols, who was living in this part of Shropshire, rang them up, said come quick, terrific house for sale, this is the place to be, London is hell. So they bought it. Two years later, the Nicholses went back to London. 'False enthusiasm,' said John. 'Perhaps Peter thought he was going to be the local famous writer. Farmers didn't know who he was and why should they? But I like it here. No, I don't take part much in local life. I've not much to contribute. But they love Helen. I'll die here, and be buried in the local cemetery over there.'

I made the mistake of asking what he was working on. As one does. In fact, I asked twice, as he appeared to be a trifle deaf, or it could be part of his Noel Coward, old-world act. It did at least get him going. He was soon firing away, lashing out at his supposed enemies, contradicting himself, often in the same thought, the same sentence.

'Do you ask an accountant if he's done any accounting this morning? Or ask to see his accounts? An actor is still an actor, even when he's not in a play. I am a writer. It is an attitude of mind. I write in my head, all the time. It doesn't matter whether it's good or bad, it's still there, I see it in my head. It's an inconvenience in a way, living with this mechanism. I'm an all-round writer, always have been. I should be able do a leader for the Times, a Daily Mirror article, or a play. People are too snobby about writing. The best writers have also been journalists, from Dr Johnson onwards.

'But I don't know what they are doing at the moment, hounding public figures. I created Paul Slickey as a monster, but they are far worse today, vicious, wheedling, condemning cabinet ministers and defence chiefs when they themselves have squalid, seedy sex lives with mistresses in Wembley.

'I don't know many writers. When they talk together, they don't talk about writing. They talk about money or sex. Mostly money. I've never written for money or ambition. In fact, I don't know why the hell I have written. Yes I do. It's the purest pleasure. When it's going well it's better than anything in the world, even sex. Look, I don't know why you've come. I've nothing to say . . . .'

He has a book just out. Damn you, England is a collection of his prose over 35 years. The title article comes from a piece of invective he wrote in 1961, saying he hated this country, wishing us all dead. Bit over the top? 'I remember writing that. I'd gone on holiday to France with Tony Richardson. One morning we went to get the English newspapers. They seemed so trivial, so I dashed off that piece, sent it to old Tribune. They printed it, and everyone else took it up. I remember a discussion with Freddy Ayer. What a stupid man. His wife, Dee Wells, was rather nice. She had the most marvellous long legs. . . .'

The article. Would he write it now? 'I used to rage in an instant, knocking out 900 words. I meant it at the time, but exaggerated. It's all about style, y'know. My style used to be misinterpreted. People will take my tone of voice literally.'

Some things surely must be regretted. In the first, riveting volume of his autobiography, A Better Class of Person, he was pretty horrible to his mother. 'You say I was horrible to her. I say I was critical. Why is it the British have made mothers such revered figures, as if they were monarchs, who cannot be touched? No, perhaps take back that comparison. I had lots of letters after that book - from women. They all said their mothers had been horrible to them. Not many from men. Wasn't that interesting?'

Couldn't you have waited till she was dead before slagging her off? 'Why? My mother was a monster. I couldn't bear to clean out her flat when she died, so Helen went to her nasty little Pimlico flat, to clean out her Mars bars.'

'She also had some beaded evening dresses and Lurex tops,' said Helen. 'Very strange.'

'She loved the Daily Mail sending reporters to her doorstep,' said John. ' 'Did he say that. Ooh, he's always been a funny boy.' She never read the book - I knew she wouldn't. I never did her any damage. She loved it. She died happy.'

In the second volume, he was equally horrible about Jill Bennett, his fourth wife, who committed suicide. He regretted that he had never spat on her grave. 'I don't call that horrible. I was generous to her. Why are people so priggish?'

Helen broke in to add that Jill's suicide was nothing to do with John's behaviour but with the break-up of an affair. Nor was she - Helen - a friend of Jill's, as reported at the time, but a mere acquaintance. However, his supposed ill-treatment has led to a campaign against him by some American feminists. 'They're called the Daughters of Eve,' Helen said. 'They write from California, but with no address, attacking John, Harold Pinter and Ted Hughes, blaming them for what happened to their wives. It's no joke. They have a curse on the lot of them, saying the Goddess Zuni is going to get them.'

John laughed and got up, padding off in his socks. He suffers from diabetes and injects himself twice a day with insulin. It was diagnosed 12 years ago, just before he was dangerously ill. He says Helen has saved his life three times. At an awards ceremony in London last year he was booed during his speech, when people thought he was drunk, not knowing his condition.

'I'd been sitting around for four hours, dying for a drink, regretting I'd ever come. Ghastly evening. At home, thanks to Helen, I get my sugar level right, but in hotels I forget and it goes wrong. I did collapse in a coma the other day. 'If this is dying,' I thought, 'I don't think much of it.' Very unpleasant.'

More worrying, in a way, are his glooms. 'I'm deeply depressed at the moment. That's why I didn't want you to come. I always assumed everyone was depressed. I wake up on certain days and just know the day is going to be trouble. Anything can start it off, something distressing in the paper, a horrible phone call. On the other hand, I am easily pleased. If people behave well, it makes me happy.'

Two weeks ago, he decided he would start part three of his autobiography. That day, he'd changed his mind. He didn't feel up to it. However, there is the problem of earning some money.

'I earn nothing in England, apart from pounds 90 should I write a Diary for the Spectator. All my income comes from abroad - mainly from Germany. They have so many theatres, all huge, everyone goes, yet they've no plays of their own, apparently. Thank God.

'It was awfully depressing of you to point out I'm not writing anything at the moment. I never had any pattern. Some days I write for 17 hours. Writing is easy. Leading up to it is difficult. I always envied painters, having something to show each day, instantly seeing what they've done. I write in fountain pen, scribbling bits, not committing myself. I like to look at it sideways. If it's any good, Helen types it. I did learn to type in my first job, working for Gas World.

'You must realise I've never been a popular writer. None of my plays had long runs in the West End. Inadmissible Evidence - that was about the longest. Look Back in Anger didn't even make the West End. People forget that now. No, I'm not popular. Not like Tom Stoppard. Even Arnold (Wesker). He has a very clear idea of his own achievements. He talks about 'the plays' or 'the trilogy'. I am yesterday's man. No one has any interest in me any more. I don't know why you've come.'

Well, his imitation of Wesker, talking grandly about himself, that was funny. So was his mimicry of his mother, talking on the doorstep to the Mail. Or cruel, depending on your point of view. I took it all as an exaggeration, part of his style. Like running himself down. Mocking, but meaning it.

Over a delicious lunch, fish pie, the subject of money came up again, this time his dental bills. 'It will cost pounds 40,000 to have my teeth done properly. Cost me pounds 15,000 already. It's not dentistry, it's architecture. The shape of my mouth is all wrong. Graham Greene hated dentists. It went back to the husband of one of his mistresses. He was a dentist and indulged his wife, and Greene hated him for it. My first wife went off with a dentist. Very rich, with a big provincial practice. He took out four of my teeth, very painfully. It was his revenge, so I always thought.'

I admired his memorabilia, theatre posters from his plays, photos of him and Larry, the Oscar on a side table that he got for the screenplay of Tom Jones. 'People ask: why keep all these Sixties things? It's to remind me I was once alive.'

He has some Aubrey Beardsley drawings, very rude; several paintings by Patrick Procktor and a scattering of cushions embroidered with slogans: 'Nouveau Poor', 'Here Lies a Workaholic', 'It is Difficult to Soar like an Angel when you are Surrounded by Turkeys', 'Eat Drink and Re Marry'.

Not that he drinks a lot, oh no. 'Everybody I know drinks more than me,' he said, staring at Helen's gin and tonic defiantly. 'I only have a bottle, maybe two, sometimes nothing, a day. No spirits. They can be very damaging. The thing about wine is that you can top yourself up during the day.'

He's recently got a new GP, a Scottish woman, whom he likes, after a series of fallings-out with various medical persons. 'She's not censorious. She doesn't go on about my drinking and smoking. Men doctors can be so puritanical. Who wants to live to 110 anyway, if it means not smoking and drinking? Helen keeps me alive. She is very stimulating. Women are like that. She has the gift of making life go on. Men give up, when life falls about their ears.'

He did attend the local parish church for a while, but not recently. When he's in a depressed mood, says Helen, he thinks God will find him too boring. 'He says God has enough on his plate without listening to him.'

In his bathroom, beside his theatrical stuff, there's a badge, which reads: 'Since I Gave Up Hope, I Feel So Much Better'. He has it positioned so he can read it every morning. It always makes him smile.

(Photograph omitted)

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