Magazine article The Spectator

Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven

Magazine article The Spectator

Niv: The Authorised Biography of David Niven

Article excerpt

NIV: THE AUTHORISED BIOGRAPHY OF DAVID NIVEN by Graham Lord Orion, L18.99, pp. 356, ISBN 0752853066

It's being so cheerful that keeps me going

When asked why he was always so incredibly cheerful, David Niven (Stowe, Sandhurst and the Silver Screen) used to reply, 'Well, old bean, life is really so bloody awful that I feel it's my absolute duty to be chirpy and try and make everybody else happy too.' Niven's extraordinary charm and delightfully light touch made him the perfect choice for Bertie Wooster in Thank You, Jeeves (1936), his first leading role in Hollywood after he had risen from the ranks of Central Casting ('Anglo-Saxon Type No. 2008'). John Mortimer, who gave the address at the actor's memorial service 20 years ago, nicely summed up Niven's life as 'Wodehouse with tears'.

Unfortunately Graham Lord's rather plodding biography proves better at the tears than the Wodehouse. In fairness to the author, this is not entirely his fault. The trouble is many of the autobiographical anecdotes that Niven liked to trot out in order to cheer people up had little or no basis in reality. Poor Lord pleads in the preface, 'Niv was the twinkling star, the meteor who lit up every room he entered; I am just the dreary drudge whose job it is to try to tell the truth.' To which one might respond, 'Fair enough, squire, but don't make such heavy weather of it.'

Having conscientiously assembled numerous witnesses, Lord is inclined to let them all have their say at too great a length, even if they are repeating the same points over and over again. Frequently I found myself muttering, after being told for the umpteenth time that, say, Niven was tremendously insecure, a crashing snob, a 'difficult' author, had an exceptionally thick penis and a second wife who was a poisonous Swedish bitch, 'All right, all right, we'll take that as read - get on with it!'

Lord, once a stalwart of the Sunday Express, suggests two possible scoops concerning paternity. First, that Niven could have been the son of his detested stepfather, Sir Thomas Comyn-Platt, a dullish diplomat (whom Lord touchingly defends from Niven's strictures); and secondly, that Kristina, the actor's elder adopted daughter of his second marriage, might be Niven's natural daughter by another woman. Physical resemblances would appear to confirm these theories, though they can often be misleading.

In any event, Stowe seems to have had the most influence on the young Niven. …

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