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.

How I Write… by W. Sydney Robinson

To celebrate the official release of Speak Well of Me today, we’ve been chatting to its author, W. Sydney Robinson, about how his day-to-day life as a writer looks… it’s not all book launches and agent lunches you know!

Writers seldom discuss their working practices. The reason is simple: nothing is more unglamorous or depressing than a writer’s routine. This is not to say that authors lament their lot – far from it – but the pleasure they derive from this most dreary of pastimes will always be a minor mystery for the happy, well-rounded multitude.

The first illusion to demolish is that we spend most of our time writing. Over the past decade I have completed three biographies, but only a small fraction of this time has been devoted to the actual process of writing. What takes infinitely longer is the task of hunting down information: in libraries, archives and – most exciting of all – among the living. Only once a great deal of undigested material has been assembled does the outline of the book begin to take shape – and then one can actually begin.

W. Sydney Robinson

When I reach this stage my daily routine is unerring. I wake up as early as possible – sometimes four or five o’clock in the morning. I quickly review what I did the previous day, making any changes which seem necessary, before sketching an outline of whatever I hope to achieve that day – sometimes as much as a whole chapter. This planning stage is crucial. Out of the mass of materials, I try to link together a story, usually sticking quite rigidly to the chronology, but departing from this when a particular event or anecdote seems part of a more general theme. Wherever possible I will allow the subject of the biography to tell the story for himself, as there is nothing more tedious to the general reader than the biographer commenting upon events or documents in the manner of a narrator. They have come to hear Johnson or Nelson or ‘LBJ’ – not Boswell, Southey or Robert A. Caro. That may be an old-fashioned view, but it happens to be my own.

Once the day’s paragraphs have been sketched out, I take a short walk or, sometimes, a run. This moment contemplating the dawn of a new day is vital for me. To see the sun beaming down on empty fields, or men and women hurrying to their places of work, helps keep my self-appointed task in perspective. For nothing is more destructive to a writer’s readability than to forget that to the world at large his output very likely means nothing at all.

Having cobbled together the bare bones of the paragraphs I take myself to one of my preferred cafes to commence work. In my early days of writing I had a romantic notion that small, independent coffee houses would be the most congenial places for this. I soon learnt, however, that there is little a purveyor of delicious homemade carrot cake detests more than a writer. So instead I sip my small latte in a Costa or a Nero for several hours, and before I know it the morning is over – and most of my day’s work complete.

This is when the early start begins to pay dividends. With six or seven hundred words safely in the iCloud, it is possible to peruse other people’s books. I know that some authors swear that they never read a line not written by themselves until their task is complete, but I can envisage no way of writing that was not at least in part derivative of what has come before. To be unconscious of this would be to allow one’s style to be dictated by Steve Wright, Homes Under the Hammer, The Big Bang Theory, or whatever other scraps of culture one may pick up around the house on a normal day. For my reading I tend to stick to what I know best: the classics, as well as the innumerable books by authors I happen to have written about. Over the past four years this has entailed reading through the scores of plays, novels, biographies and histories composed by one of our greatest of living authors – Sir Ronald Harwood – but I still derive much inspiration from my previous literary subjects, especially Sir Arthur Bryant, Dean Inge and the Titanic’s most curious victim, W. T. Stead.

In the early evening I finish the last of my writing before reading it all the way through again, just as I commenced the day. This helps ensure that there is no ‘break’ or deviation in the chapter. On some days I earmark the entire new section for destruction the following morning – a writer must not be too precious about these things.

And then, if I am lucky enough to still have someone who is willing, I find a friend with whom to pass an agreeable evening discussing other things. For however large, however important and however great the subject may be, the writing of another person’s life is no substitute for a life that is lived.

Speak Well of Me is published today and is available to buy online here, in all good bookshops, and can also be ordered into your local bookshop on request. 

If you enjoyed this insight into a writer’s life, let us know, we would love to expand this blog into a mini-series, featuring more of our writers. You can also check out How to Be a Writer for more on how professional writers organise their working day. 

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 info@oberonbooks.com 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.

9781783198559

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.

Rosalind

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 - https://angelathirlwell.co.uk/

Angela Thirlwell – https://angelathirlwell.co.uk/

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.

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‘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. 

Oppenheimer

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

9781849434515

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.