No regrets – a biographer’s celebration

We’re all told not to speak ill of the dead, but what about the living? When award-winning biographer and book reviewer W. Sydney Robinson began tackling a living subject for the first time in his career, he found it an altogether more lively experience! Robinson is the author of Muckraker: the scandalous life and times of WT Stead, Britain’s first investigative journalist, and The Last Victorians: a daring reassessment of four twentieth century eccentrics. He lives in Northamptonshire and teaches full-time.

“It is a truism among biographers that one must wait until a subject is ‘nice and dead’. However, when I was given the opportunity to write the authorised biography of Sir Ronald, I did not hesitate. Nor do I, at the end of the four year journey writing the book, have any regrets.

Sir Ronald Harwood in his study

I appreciate that in many ways I was extremely fortunate. Firstly, Sir Ronald could not have been more generous in his terms. As well as granting me over ten hours to interview him, he also threw open all of his papers and gave me unrestricted access to his wide circle of friends and acquaintances. Secondly, once the book was completed he did not demand any cuts or alterations that were not of a purely factual nature. When one reads the horror stories of biographers unable to publish their books because of objections of a more subjective nature, it is impossible not to feel incredibly grateful – and lucky.

W. Sydney Robinson

Yet the main reason that I am delighted to have been able to write the Life of a living subject is more personal. For a long time it has saddened me to be told by people ‘in the know’ that one must write about famous authors and journalists from years ago – one agent insisted that yet another biography of Charles Dickens was the ideal way to follow up on my first books about Victorian and post-Victorian public figures. And there are many professional biographers now combing archives and newspaper databases for material about writers of even lesser quality – when we have many great authors alive and well.

Sir Ronald Harwood’s oeuvre stretches from the dawn of the 1960s, when he wrote a novel about Civil Rights in South Africa, to 2012, when he wrote the screenplay adaptation of his poignant play Quartet. In between these impressive milestones he has done a plethora of novels, plays, films, and an excellent biography of Sir Donald Wolfit, who provided the inspiration for his most enduring work of drama, The Dresser.

If Speak Well of Me succeeds in charting these achievements and capturing the spirit of Sir Ronald’s lively and engaging personality, then I will happily endure the slings and arrows of those who remain obstinate that one can never write a satisfactory biography of a living subject. For what is a biography if it is not alive – be the subject living or dead?”

Speak Well of Me is available to order now from the Oberon Books website. For your chance to win a copy signed by both W. Sydney Robinson and Sir Ronald Harwood, email your name & postal address to and we’ll enter you into the prize draw.

Rosalind’s Daughters: from Joan Hunter Dunn to Serena Williams

Angela Thirlwell is an experienced and highly regarded biographer. For her latest book, however, in very creative approach to biography, she’s chosen Shakespeare’s Rosalind as her subject. The result is a playful, insightful, and impeccably researched glimpse of the real Rosalind… even if how ‘real’ she can ever be is still a matter for debate.
In this guest blog post, Angela’s excitement about Wimbledon prompts new ideas about Rosalind’s legacy.

It’s Wimbledon fortnight and my daughter and I are lucky enough to have won two tickets through the public ballot for seats high up on No. 1 Court. The combination of guile and aggression in the modern women’s game made me suddenly ask myself if Shakespeare’s Rosalind would have played tennis? Of course, on one level, she couldn’t have played lawn tennis as played at Wimbledon today. The game as we know it hadn’t been invented. Tudor men like Henry VIII played real tennis, a breathless version of the game with small-headed wooden rackets and hard balls ricocheting off indoor walls and roof – rather like to squash.  Women didn’t play lawn tennis at Wimbledon until 1884 about 20 years after the new game of lawn had become popular with men.


One of the chapters I found so much fun in writing for my book about Rosalind, the heroine of As You Like It, was my very personal take on her ‘Afterlife – A woman for all time – Rosalind’s daughters’. I realised that so many of Rosalind’s descendants had been part of my reading landscape since I was a child, from Jo March in Little Women to Lizzie Bennet in Pride and Prejudice. Neither actually cross-dressed as a boy called Ganymede like Rosalind but Jo sheared off her hair and sold it to pay the family bills, and Lizzie tramped the fields six inches deep in mud, vaulting stiles and charging through puddles with scant concern for her delicate Regency petticoats. Like Rosalind, both Jo and Lizzie both took command and found themselves liberated by claiming the rights of their boyfriends or brothers.


Wimbledon fortnight makes me remember one tennis-playing daughter of Rosalind I left out of my chapter on her Afterlife. She’s John Betjeman’s wartime beauty, Miss Joan Hunter Dunn, with her ‘strongly adorable tennis-girl’s hand!’ The young subaltern – or Betjeman himself – who worships her reminds me of Rosalind’s Orlando who played love games in the Forest of Arden and impaled his sonnets in her praise on its branches. Shakespeare’s love story unfolds through a series of duelling conversations – like the erotic geometry of tennis:

Miss J. Hunter Dunn, Miss J. Hunter Dunn,
Furnish’d and burnish’d by Aldershot sun,
What strenuous singles we played after tea,
We in the tournament – you against me!

Joan Hunter Dunn

Joan Hunter Dunn

Darting about the court in her daring culottes or shorts, Joan’s appeal is as homoerotic as Rosalind’s.  Betjeman’s subaltern almost swoons at the effect:

Love-thirty, love-forty, oh! weakness of joy,
The speed of a swallow, the grace of a boy.

In the year of Shakespeare400, who are the strong Rosalinds of the 2016 Wimbledon Championships? Serena Williams, Garbine Muguruza, Johanna Konta. You can make your own list!

Angela Thirlwell -

Angela Thirlwell –

Learn more about Rosalind: A Biography of Shakespeare’s Immortal Heroine HERE
Learn more about Angela Thirlwell HERE
Learn more about Joan Hunter Dunn HERE

Sheridan Morley Prize Shortlist Announced

Sheridan Morley

Sheridan Morley

The Shortlist for the 2016 Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography has been announced, and we’re delighted to see Peter Whitebrook’s new biography of John Osborne included in the line up of five. John Osborne: Anger is Not About… was published in October 2015 and has been widely praised since.

‘Whitebrook’s account is readable and pacy. He writes with insight and clarity, and is especially good at sketching out the social, cultural and political context of the playwright’s life and times.’ Aleks Sierz, Tribune Magazine

The other nominees are James Shapiro for 1606 William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, David Hare for The Blue Touch Paper, Qais Akbar Omar and Stephen Landrigan for A Night in the Emperor’s Garden and Michael Pennington for Let Me Play The Lion/How to Be an Actor.

The judging panel includes Kika Markham, who was indeed shortlisted herself for last year’s award for Our Time of Day: My Life with Colin Redgrave. Previous recipients of the prestigeous prize include Dominic Dromgoole, Sir Michael Holroyd, Simon Callow, Stephen Sondheim, Rupert Everett and Michael Blakemore.


‘As Peter Whitebrook’s thoroughly researched biography of John Osborne so ably demonstrates, the legacy of one of the most significant writers of the 20th century is simultaneously both invigorating and sad… a readable biography that goes rather further than one might expect’ British Theatre Guide

‘Whitebrook takes the reader through every peak and trough of a story that has plenty of both… There are also some fine anecdotes that deserve re-telling.’  Keith Bruce, Herald Scotland


Click here to read an exclusive extract in the Independent.

Established in 2008 to honour Sheridan Morley’s career as an author who specialised in biographies of actors, directors, and theatre and film personalities, including his own memoir, Asking for Trouble. The 2016 Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography will be awarded in a ceremony on 2nd March at the Garrick Club in London. The winner receives a £2,000 cash prize. We’re wishing Peter Whitebrook all the best from everyone at Oberon Books!

Click here to learn more about the Sheridan Morley Prize.

Oppenheimer: Why ask the question? Why dramatise this story?

Tom Morton-Smith’s new play Oppenheimer, which opened at the RSC’s Swan Theatre on 15th January, looks at the man behind the Manhattan Project. Here, Tom gives an insight into one of the most controversial figures of the 20th Century, and how the work Oppenheimer did has affected our collective history. 


At the RSC’s Swan Theatre until 7th March 2015

Even knowing very little it is hard not to have an opinion about J Robert Oppenheimer. Few of the 20th century’s great public figures were as complex and contradictory as the Father of the Atomic Bomb. For a period of time he was a hero, personifying America’s triumph of intellect, industry and will – a symptom, if not a cause, of the United States’ emergence as a superpower. During the 1950s Oppenheimer found himself at the centre of the Red Scare. He was a Communist sympathising socialist with a radical past and at the heart of government, a godless scientist with access to the highest levels of security – everything McCarthyism saw as dangerous. To those who opposed nuclear weapons he had opened Pandora’s Box – releasing a great evil into the world. He was pilloried by all sides as a war criminal or as a traitor. If people today know anything about Oppenheimer it is for the horrifying, arrogant, self-aggrandising quote: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Oppenheimer would argue that his actions safeguarded the world from a third world war. He believed, as many of the scientists who worked with him did, that the creation of a weapon as destructive as the a-bomb would make the concept of war so unpalatable that soldiers across the world would lay down their arms. This echoes the beliefs of Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who said: The day when two army corps can annihilate each other in one second, all civilized nations, it is to be hoped, will recoil from war and discharge their troops.”

There are no right answers when it comes to J Robert Oppenheimer. He cannot be neatly labelled as either hero or villain. It is a remarkable coincidence that the processes of atomic fission were discovered as the first fully industrialised war broke out in Europe – had fission come ten years later the resource and the will for such a bomb may have never developed. But Oppenheimer saw that it was possible – and at a time when the Germans were the world leaders in particle physics – he knew that the atomic bomb was inevitable. The Battle of the Laboratories (as President Truman called it) was very real for the scientists of the time – and if it was a choice for the Nazis to have the bomb or the Americans – then for Oppenheimer the decision was straightforward.

J. Robert Oppenheimer, c. 1944

J. Robert Oppenheimer, c. 1944

With hindsight it is clear that nuclear weapons serve only to deter nuclear war. In his short story collection, Einstein’s Monsters, Martin Amis writes: “How do we prevent the use of nuclear weapons? By threatening the use of nuclear weapons. And we can’t get rid of nuclear weapons, because of nuclear weapons.” Oppenheimer is very much part of the world that we have. We can fantasise a world without the atomic bomb – we can imagine alternate histories without the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki – we can comfort ourselves with the thought that perhaps Oppenheimer was crushed by guilt for the rest of his life – but the bombs are here and the history is how it is. The scientists of the Manhattan Project believed that their work would end a war and save lives – and it did. Whether it was the ‘right’ thing to do is one of those horribly nebulous philosophical questions that will never have a satisfactory answer.

So why ask the question? Why dramatise this story? Why rake over these old coals of Communism, acts of war and particle physics? Because there will always be a new advancement in weapons technology. There will always be new science. There will always be a new war. There will always be a new ideological threat. And revisiting how we answered those unanswerable questions yesterday, will help us as we wrestle with what is unanswerable today.

Oppenheimer is available to buy on the Oberon Books website HERE
Tickets are available from the RSC’s website HERE

Kate Bassett shortlisted for HW Fisher Prize


Kate Bassett‘s book In Two Minds: A biography of Jonathan Miller has been shortlisted for the HW Fisher Prize for Best First Biography.

For a taste of what’s inside, and to see why Miller is regarded as ‘one of the most amazing conversationalists the world has ever produced’, head to the National Theatre’s Soundcloud to hear author and subject in conversation in a live Platform event.