Magazine article The Spectator

Close Up: An Actor Telling Tales

Magazine article The Spectator

Close Up: An Actor Telling Tales

Article excerpt

A modest triumph CLOSE UP: AN ACTOR TELLING TALES by John Fraser Oberon Books, £21, pp. 294, ISBN 1840024577 £20 (plus £2.25 p&p) 0870 800 4848

Handsome young male actors of the older school have tended, in my experience, to be somewhat vapid and vain. I write this in no spirit of envy - comic and character actors, like proverbial blondes, usually have more fun. A shining exception to my first observation has always been John Fraser, once a golden youth, later a leading stage actor of distinction, always an intelligent, witty, modest and charming man. These latter qualities are much in evidence in his delightful autobiography. He writes exceedingly well - his often short, pithy chapters and sentences and his gift for evoking natural scenery invite comparison with Dirk Bogarde's writings but have none of Bogarde's occasional preciosity. There are remarkable set pieces like his description of a stag hunt in France at once romantic and brutal - and many hilarious vignettes. When John was a Rank film star he attended grand lunches at the aforementioned Bogarde's house with luminaries like Rex Harrison, Kay Kendall and Judy Garland:

Another guest, the Thirties musical star Jessie Matthews, was a sort of in-joke, I suppose and as jokes are frequently wont to do, it misfired. She not only sang 'Over my Shoulder' to Judy, but piling Pelion on the Ossa of embarrassment, she insisted on high-kicking her way round the table showing her knickers which barely concealed an uncharted moonscape of cellulite.

John can be merciless but never malicious; with notable exceptions he rejoices in humanity's foibles. His life has by no means always been easy. His impoverished beginnings on a pre-war Glasgow council estate, with a hopelessly, violently drunken father and an adored mother both dying at only 48, make for painful reading, all the more so because of the writer's lack of self-pity. A good high-school education paid for by a remarkable aunt, early exposure to literature, music and painting were saving graces.

His homosexuality, described unflinchingly but quite unsalaciously, created a major problem for him in his youth as it did for any invert while the cruel anti-gay laws still operated, especially for a popular young film star adored by women and platonically adoring them. …

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