Many years ago I was enthralled by James Boswell’s London Journal which led me on to his amazing Life of Johnson, a work that established the biographer as a far greater writer than the man he was describing.
These experiences should have led me on to reading more Journals, but somehow or other, they didn’t, perhaps because Journals always seem to be so voluminous. I do all of my book-reading in bed, so naturally I have always tended towards smaller books that are easier to hold up to the light. Okay, I know it is a foolish reason, but ‘tis mine own.
As I established in my last chronicle I have embarked on the nearly 500-page diaries of Peter Hall, the drama producer who became the most important theatre administrator of the last 50 years in the crowded minefield that is the English theatre. I am not sure I really like the bloke who is portrayed therein, but I have to confess that this form does throw up some wonderful insights into the workings of otherwise obscure institutions. Having hit the 200-page mark, I thought I would share with my readers some gems that Hall revealed when he dictated his diaries into a microphone at the end of every working day.
Looming over all of his work was the figure of Laurence Olivier, the most renowned actor of his time, who became the director of the first National Theatre, a long-established objective that finally came into physical existence just as Olivier was declining into old age. At first, while the new building for the long-promised theatre was being built --- it was to have three stages --- the institution got off the ground, and began productions in the entirely inadequate premises of the Old Vic theatre, which for many years had been he centre of Shakespearean production in London. In recent years, a newcomer, the Royal Shakespeare Company, an off-shoot of the Stratford–on-Avon company, had been established by the youthful Peter Hall in the Aldwych theatre, where, in company with Peter Brook, an acknowledged genius of theatrical production, the newcomers began to set new standards for modern theatre previously unmatched in Britain.
Brook apparently had no stomach for the minutiae of the work of establishing and running a theatre; and when, as the completion of the new building was further and further delayed into the future, Olivier began to tire of it all, it fell to Peter Hall to be anointed as the new director. It was a task he undertook with enthusiasm. Of course he soon found it was a close-to impossible job. He had to keep the Old Vic productions going, but always with a mind of establishing a company that would be able to fill the three stages of the great new theatre that awaited them. He began to get future commitments from virtually all of the greatest directors, the finest actors, designers and so on in the country, and pretty soon the complainers emerged saying this great new National Theatre with its vast subsidies, would be the killing of British theatre as it was known.
When Hall took the job it was at a salary far below what he could earn in commercial theatre: he needed a good deal of money because he had several children by successive wives, a total of eight people dependent upon his earnings. He figured he might be able to make a go of it if he could earn 5,000 pounds a year from peripheral activities, so while planning and negotiating with the emotional characters who would comprise the meat and drink of the distant NT, he had to think of taking offered jobs to direct schlocky films, had to accept jobs as an actor for a German film, and had to accept to direct filmed advertisements for various products --- and all just for the money, as he keeps repeating….
There are some wonderful descriptions of the sensitivities of these theatrical people. Jonathan Miller, who first emerged as a comedian in the renowned Cambridge university show Beyond the Fringe, was a brilliant man, already a qualified doctor, who later became a prominent director of plays and operas. At an early stage he proposed that he should direct for the NT a production of Oscar Wilde’s glorious comedy The Importance of Being Ernest --- with the difference that it would have an all-male cast. After much discussion this idea was nixed, but Miller took it so badly that he got into a kind of funk. Hall eventually had a meeting with him:
“I asked him why he had been behaving in a Coriolanus-like way, booking himself up outside the NT, as I’ve now discovered he has been, so that there was no possibility of employing him for the next year or so; yet going around saying he was resigning as he was fed up with not being used. There was a complete breast-beating scene. He said he always loud-mouthed against authority, was always against the father-figure, was verbally promiscuous….I asked him why he went about saying the National wasn’t using him. He apologized, asked to stay. I don’t believe he will.”
Managing these high-tempo stars was far from easy. In preparing a production of an Ibsen play, Hall had managed to cast Wendy Hiller, Ralph Richardson, Peggy Ashcroft, three of Britain’s greatest theatre stars, along with a lesser-known player Alan Webb, who became violently ill, as was Wendy Hiller, who nevertheless appeared for rehearsal against doctor’s orders, wheezing, coughing and voiceless. He began to think of opening without the two sick players. "Ralph is an instinctive tennis player, ” Hall commented. “If he finds himself playing a scene with an actor who doesn’t interest him, he chunters through as quickly as possible. Alan forces him to play good tennis.” And then:
“There was a ridiculous moment today at rehearsal when Peggy and Ralph sat side by side on the sofa. Peggy said it was much too high for her to work on, Ralph said it was just right. I soothed things over by saying we should practise with some lumps of foam rubber and get a compromise height. Ralph, as he left, his motorbike helmet securely on his head, winked and whispered to me: ‘Don’t touch that bloody sofa.’ ”
A few days later:
“Dreadful dream. My mother and father and I were looking at coffins and selecting my father’s for he had agreed to die that afternoon. Mother was in a frightful temper because…she found it extremely inconvenient of father to decide to die on this particular afternoon. Father was, as usual, cheerful about the whole proceeding and accepting it with a good grace.
“Considerable feeling of distress today as if I have been through some long physical disaster. I begin to think what is the point of working at this pressure and putting up with all the shit about the National Theatre. I have only 2 ½ years of my contract to run so I shall be getting rhe new building open for somebody else to use. Is it worth it?’ ”
Part of the job put Hall in touch with the highest in the land:
“To Buckingham Palace for the Queen’s Reception for the media…Newspaper editors, television controllers, journalists and commentators. Heath looking like a tanned waxwork; Macmillan a revered side show, an undoubted star; a few actors (Guinness, Ustinov, Finney), and all the chaps like me…
“It was two and a half hours of tramping round the great reception rooms eating bits of Lyons pate, drinking oversweet warm white wine…. and that atmosphere of jocular ruthlessness which characterizes the Establishment on its nights out. Wonderful paintings, of course, and I was shown the bullet that killed Nelson.
“As we were presented, the Queen asked me when the National Theatre would open. I said I didn’t know. The Duke asked me when the National Theatre would open. I said I didn’t know. The Prince of Wales asked me when the National Theatre would open. I said I didn't know. At least they knew I was running the National Theatre….
“Home by 2 am with very aching feet. Who’d be a courtier?”
Now we know why they are among the richest families in Britain.
Serving second-rate Lyons products with warm white wine! I know about Lyons and their food from my three months working in their factory as a labourer in 1952, never dreaming that the food was going out to the highest in the land.
And always the worry about money:
“All my personal accounts are overdrawn. And Kimble (his accountant) is now telling me I must earn between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds a year more…. (Three weeks later): “A dreadful hour with Kimble. There is no hope for my future peace of mind unless I can cut down the cost of my family overheads. Something will have to go. But I can’t think what….My impulse at the moment is to take to my heels and run --- from every responsibility and every family tie. Is this the fine gesture of the revolutionary saving his creative self? Or is it (and I think it is) the ostrich wanting to place his head in the sand? The truth is that work in the subsidized theatre can never earn me the kind of money I need to keep everyone in comfort. I knew this when I went to the National.”
I couldn’t help asking myself why, as the working class boy he proclaimed himself to be at the beginning of these diaries, he had to keep his children in such expensive private schools. But I guess he knew the British class system better than I…..
Finally, for those who have admired Laurence Olivier as actor and producer over the years, Hall offers up an intriguing picture: occasionally fussy, reluctant to give up, always popping up unexpectedly even after he had retired, anxious always to have his say. His last 20 years were marked by severe illnesses, and Hall gives us a graphic description of their effect on him (this was written in 1975):
“To Roebuck House to see Larry. He is alert, humorous with a mind dancing from subject to subject much as in the old days. But the scale of him seems to have been pressed, reduced; the strong physical presence seems to have gone….He has surmounted cancer, surmounted phlebitis and this recent muscular virus should have been the death of him, but he has surmounted that, too. He told me that every muscle in his body was affected. He couldn’t keep his eyelids open. He couldn’t swallow, so he had to be fed intravenously. Only one muscle continued to operate properly ---the muscle in his right thumb. This he used gently to press the bell for the nurse. He has had to learn to walk again, to write again, and ---- most importantly --- to train his voice again. It is still high, still a parody of its former self, but it is improvin…. He said he didn't like going into town very much as crossing the road was diffucult. He could move at an even pace, but if he needed to take two quick steps to avoid a car his knees might give way…. He said he has to cease being a NT asssociate director this autumn, that anyway was when his contract was up….I said he must…somehow take part in the opening of his theatre. He answered that he knew there would be disappointment if he didn’t act in the new theatre, but he would sooner that than have people disappointed if he did. I urged him to accept the presidency of the National. He said he would think about it.”
It is a measure of the great actor’s determination that he not only overcame all these physical problems, but was still acting fourteen years later in the year of his death, 1989, at the age of 82.