Aboard the Victory O

This funny and touching memoir was originally written by Jonathan Miller for a celebratory volume of essays by colleagues and friends of stage and screen actor Laurence Olivier. It is published in the collection One Thing And Another: Selected Writings 1954-2016, published by Oberon Books and edited by Ian Greaves.

“I first met him informally at parties after Beyond the Fringe. He saw the show and was, I suspect, slightly irritated by our Shakespeare sketch. He had sat in a box and it got backstage that he was not conspicuously amused.

My first professional contact with him was when Ken Tynan edited a television programme called Tempo, which was commercial television’s answer to Monitor. With his wonderful flair for what is fashionable, Tynan had asked us to do a regular satirical spot. In the opening programme this was a pastiche of C. P. Snow written by Alan Bennett, a high-table scene of people drinking, wearing gowns and so forth, and bandying conversation about. On the same programme Larry was being interviewed by George Harewood about the opening of Chichester.

Jonathan Miller, then & now

We were on first but we began ‘corpsing.’ There were two takes, three takes, and Larry was obviously amused by the fact that the young lads couldn’t do it. By the fourth take we could see him getting more and more impatient at these dreadful amateurs. It took something like 20 takes before we got it right, by which time he was thoroughly nettled, if only because we’d kept him waiting so long.

Then I didn’t see him for some while, by which time I’d blotted my copybook quite badly with him. When I saw his performance as Othello, I told a journalist that while I couldn’t help but admire the extraordinary bravura, energy and detail of it, I wasn’t all that impressed by the performance as a whole. He was understandably annoyed by this – or I heard he was – and looking back I can understand just how he felt and I’m rather surprised he ever asked me to direct anything. However, some years later I was doing my first and only feature film – an unspeakable catastrophe – and was sitting in the commissariat at Elstree when a message came through saying ‘Laurence Olivier on the phone.’ I thought it was Alan Bennett or Peter Cook. Anyway, a hoax. I came to the phone and heard this voice saying, ‘Dear boy… This is Laurence Olivier here… Joanie wants to do The Merchant of Venice and would love you to direct it.’ No question of him acting in it, no mention of that at all.

I was blushing at the thought of what I had said about his Othello. ‘I would love to,’ I managed to say and I mentioned doing a nineteenth-century version. He said, ‘Whichever way you want to.’ Later I saw from his book that he came up with the idea. It may well be that we both thought of it. But, anyway, it then gradually became apparent that he was going to do Shylock. Now, whether he had thought this all along and had decided to delay committing himself until he found out whether I had an idea which coincided with his own, or one which he could approve of, the fact is that he came to the first reading knowing the part perfectly. Not like the other actors.

This was so characteristic of him. He’s very Machiavellian and although this has its drawbacks, there was always something glamorous about his political calculation. It was like working for Diocletian.

Before rehearsals I had a lot of difficulty eliminating ideas of which he had been persuaded by Ken Tynan, who had in turn been persuaded by Orson Welles. The idea, for example, that Bassanio should play all three suitors, including the black one, in order to get the right casket. There was another idea that Portia would present herself in court in a wheelchair. In any case there were a lot of encrustations – Tynan’s rather than Olivier’s – which I had to careen before I could find the clean lines of the play. Eventually we came to an agreement, which also involved persuading him to drop an enormous amount of make-up – false nose, ringlets, a Disraeli beard, all adding up to a sort of George Arliss. I said, ‘Larry, please’ – as a Jew I felt embarrassed – ‘please, we’re not quite like that, not all of us.’ He then said a wonderful thing: ‘In this play, dear boy, which we are about to perform, we must at all costs avoid offending the Hebrews. God, I love them so.’ ‘The best way to do that, Larry,’ I said, ‘is to drop these pantomime trappings which are offensive and unnecessary.’ He agreed to drop the ringlets.

But he had invested in extremely expensive dentures which gave him his strong prognathous look – based, I think, on a member of the National Theatre Board – and he was so attached to them in both senses that I felt I would have been a terrible spoilsport to object to them. He used to go round the corridors of the National Theatre seeing whether anyone knew he had them in. He would give interviews to journalists wearing them. He loved them so much and he looked rather good in them – and I couldn’t bring myself to object!

Still from The Merchant of Venice

In the event we did a lot of horse-trading. I would give him ideas and he would exploit them. He never tried to push rank. He has what all really great actors have – an expedient recognition of good business. If you have a good idea he’ll take it from you regardless. If not he will go on to ‘automatic pilot,’ or rather he’ll take over the controls himself.

I suggested the little dance, at the moment when Tubal tells him Antonio’s ships have gone down. I also suggested that he entered bearing Jessica in his arms when he discovers her flight. This reminded the audience subliminally of Lear and Cordelia – another father ‘betrayed’ by his daughter. I suggested his crying at the end, though not in any way which he didn’t utterly make his own. He always looks for a memorable effect at some critical moment and I remember him saying, ‘Oh God, I’ve done a fit, a fall, I cannot possibly fart!’ I said, ‘Why not try humiliated, terrible crying. I can’t do it, but I know you can.’ Off he went and gave it this curious unparaphrasable energy and vehemence which did actually freeze the blood. I remember him saying, ‘Oh dear boy,’ and there was a look of brimming gratitude in his eyes. He has an absolutely wonderful, really humble magnanimity. If something is good, it doesn’t matter who or where it comes from.

When the Merchant opened I became aware of his stagefright, as he called it. I didn’t know it was that, not until three or four days into the run. He certainly never spoke about it during rehearsals or run-throughs or on the first night.

I was standing in the wings one night and could see, in that rather unnatural light coming from elsewhere which you see from the darkness of the wings – a look of shocked terror on his face, beads of sweat on the make-up and his eyes staring as if they were behind a mask. I couldn’t detect anything more than a hesitation. I knew, though, from brief moments of stagefright in Beyond the Fringe, that what to an outside observer seems like a thirtieth-second is half an hour for the victim. He then confessed to me that he had these moments of appalling, shattering lapses in which he forgot his words and the earth stood still. There was a night when he actually forgot the things that a Jew has: ‘Hath not a Jew eyes?…’ One was almost tempted to say, ‘Hath not a Jew elbows!’

Still from The Merchant of Venice

After the event he was wonderfully humorous about it, but I should imagine from the drenched and exhausted way in which he came off stage it was far from funny. I think it happens to a lot of people as they get older. It was obviously more than mere forgetfulness. It was the terror of a moment of standing outside himself and seeing himself suspended in the night sky of a theatrical performance, illuminated by all those lights, watched by dimly visible faces – and frozen. It must have been a horrible experience.

But he seemed to recover from it because far from retiring as he threatened to do, he came back with redoubled vigour in Long Day’s Journey into Night. He has this curious and startling immortality, which became part of his charisma. He would be fatally ill one moment and the next moment he’d be back on stage doing a part of heroic length with some superbly accomplished piece of business, giving the performance of his life. Everything about him as a public performer is to do with being unexpected, unpredictable – Machiavellian in fact.

His ability to shift with the tide is also absolutely astonishing. There was a time when, despite the noble glamour of his roles in Henry V (1944) and Hamlet (1948), he belonged, for a lot of younger people, to another era. The slightly clipped tones, the romantic, matinée idol; nothing whatever to do with us, and we all thought he was yesteryear. Then quite suddenly he was doing Archie Rice with brilliant modern seediness. He took on the very thing which denied everything he had been. In place of the glossy, beautiful, noble, grand creature of earlier days, he was suddenly scratching the inside leg of his awful check-trousers as a seedy comic, offending all the ladies who had adored him. He renewed himself in this act of metamorphosis – a sort of phoenix performance. It’s part of his Machiavellian strategy: be unexpected, come back as something else. If they think you’re dead, spring to life; if they think you’re passé, change your course. Identify with the enemy, join them, and then beat them. No one else could manage to be as protean, as Machiavellian, as self-serving – and remain so lovable.

Those of us who knew him as a father, as a leader of the National Theatre, saw he had what he had always wanted, as a great patriotic Englishman: control of the whole show. He was always the great commanding officer. He would have loved to have been the captain of the flagship which sank the Bismarck. He always wanted to serve his majesty and there he was, in command of this grounded boat, 15 brass rings on his sleeve and a bridge of his own.

The very set-up of the National, the offices in Aquinas Street, was like Pompey’s galley, or like the shacks on those HMS training ships which are on land. It was absolutely made for him. Whatever competitiveness he might have had among his peers was now sublimated into running his ship, dispensing largesse, interest, and patronage to younger actors. His eminence had been recognized and a lot of otherwise competitive energies were turned to totally benevolent purposes. He loved the thunder of feet on the companionway. He was always speaking down the tube, lots of clang-clangs to the engine-room, backings and churnings of propellers, and people brought up unexpectedly to the bridge. He had genuine interest in the welfare of his staff, like a first class Captain on a battleship. ‘Sign on. Everyone is expected to do their duty.’ And because of this he created an enormous competitive admiration and filial affection amongst those who worked for him.”

One Thing And Another is a collection of Jonathan Miller’s thoughts on subjects as varied as human behaviour, atheism, satire, cinema and television, Lewis Carroll, Charles Dickens, modern medicine and opera. It is published by Oberon Books and is available from our website.

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