Thursday, August 28, 2008

At dinner the other evening Jenny Urwin asked me what I was reading at the moment. The conversation at some point will inevitably turn to books as she is an avid reader. I usually have three books on the go: one beside my bed, one for the loo, and one in the conservatory cum dining room. That one right now of which I am halfway through is Peter Ustinov’s delightful autobiography Dear Me first published 1977. We have the Penguin edition and I have no idea how long it has been on the bookshelf or even where it came from and the only reason I started on it was because one of our cats, Betty by name, has a habit of finding the strangest, usually high up, places in which to hide herself to sleep and a short while sago, and only for a while until she found somewhere else, it was a bookshelf above a door. In jumping up there she knocked down half a dozen paperbacks, one of which was the Ustinov biography. I picked it up and thought, well, let’s have a go at this and am thoroughly enjoying it, so thank you Betty.

Apart from the wit and the beautiful writing (one can imagine Ustinov speaking) it is full of little nuggets, especially as far as the theatre is concerned. For example I didn’t know that the South African, Leonard Sachs who I worked with on television actually started the Players Theatre in London, a place we visited so many times when we lived there; that is until they had to move to new premises which had none of the atmosphere of that tatty old barn of a place underneath the arches. I seem to remember one visit, maybe two, and then for us the Players and so many wonderful evenings was no more.

Something else which struck me was, if I am allowed to quote, “It must be understood that the British theatre of the period was beset with distinguished elderly actors and actresses who were determined to be liked by the public even if they were playing totally unsympathetic characters …. The audience was beset by little signals from such performers, signifying that although they had just killed their wives or husbands on the stage owing to the exigencies of a particularly silly script which only the difficulties of the times had made them accept, they were not really like that in life at all.” Why this observation struck a chord with me was because, when I first arrived n England in 1953, there were two shows I wanted to see; one was Porgy And Bess and the other was The Innocents starring Flora Robson. Both came off a day or so before my ship docked. I thought Miss Robson a wonderful actress (the opinion changed when I saw her on film playing Elizabeth l) and I sent her my very first play The Rive Of Sand. It came back with the cryptic note “what would my fans think if I played a woman like that”! I still, even after all these years, cannot understand what she objected to in the character of a strong, sympathetic religious Boer woman. Perhaps Ustinov has given me the clue. He also has some wise observations to make about critics with which I wholeheartedly agree.

This book would make a marvellous present to any drama student about to step out into the big wide unjust world.

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