Magazine article The Spectator

A Class Act

Magazine article The Spectator

A Class Act

Article excerpt

The voice on my telephone about five years ago was unmistakably the voice of Hamlet, and faintly accusatory. `My biographer,' it said, `seems to have died.'

I thought perhaps this was in some vaguely unspecified way my fault. For once it wasn't; the great and good Richard Findlater had indeed died at a reasonable (though not of course by Gielgud standards) age, and John had decided I might make a suitable understudy.

In a sort of way I had known him all my life; my grandmother Gladys Cooper had been directed by him in Bagnold's The Chalk Garden, and Robert, my father, by him in Ustinov's Halfway Up a Tree. My now near-90-year-old mother used to hunt in Ireland with his first great love, the playwright John Perry, at the beginning of the 1930s, before the two Johns ever met.

There were curious family connections like this, but nothing very close; the theatre to which my father and grandmother belonged was defiantly anti-classical, and my own relations with John had been limited to countless radio, television and print encounters, and his help with several of my stage and screen biographies for which he was kind enough to be interviewed at length, write the prefaces and tell me of something or someone I had overlooked.

Quite apart from his acting and directing, he was an amazing stage historian; only a couple of years ago he published his own collection of programmes from the London theatre of the first world war, during the latter part of which he was a schoolboy at Westminster. In his own wonderfully spidery handwriting, all had, in the margins, detailed reviews of plays and players which any critic would have been proud to deliver today, let alone when we were 14.

He came of course from the Terry Purple, as he always said, a family with curiously weak tear glands; Ellen was his great-aunt, which meant that John was the bridge from the Irving barnstormers to latterday Shakespeareans with the close-up subtlety of a Derek Jacobi. Every actor, living or dead, in John's century was also in his debt; not just the thousands he worked with as actor, director and manager - he effectively discovered both Alec Guinness and Paul Scofield - but all the others, who watched him from the wines.

Happily we have him with us forever on tape (he and his brother Val virtually invented radio drama in the 1920s) and of course on screen. A few weeks ago, on his 96th birthday in April, he was filming a Samuel Beckett drama with Harold Pinter for David Mamet; when I asked him how it felt to be working with two great playwrights on such an anniversary, he merely said, `Surprising. …

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