Theatre in Wales

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Winter Theatre Book (2) Not the Definitive Biography

Actor Theatre Book

Robert Sellers: Peter O'Toole the Definitive Biography , Sidgwick and Jackson , December-20-16
Actor Theatre Book by Robert Sellers: Peter O'Toole the Definitive Biography Every great acting presence possesses an alchemy of its own. In the case of Peter O'Toole to read the biography is to be reminded of the experience. In “Lord Jim”, on a giant cinema screen in 1965, the camera looked deep into those unique eyes with their fathomless wells of suffering. O'Toole's film record has like all film records its highs and lows. His General Tanz in “the Night the Generals” is to be seen regularly on the Sony film channels. “The Stuntman” of 1980 vies with Truffaut's “Day for Night” to be the film industry's best ever film about itself. His film director Eli Cross is a masterpiece in a master film that is too rarely seen.

I saw him once on stage and he was mesmerising. That it was a matinee before a twenty-first party made it an occasion to doubly cherish. Siân Phillips by contrast has had a career of remarkable longevity. Her singing of “Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered” was an unforgettable melange of langour and seductiveness. That performance in “Pal Joey” in 1980 was hailed and nominated for an award. On this site she was in the Frantic Assembly-National Theatre of Wales collaboration “Little Dogs” and toured the lead role in Alan Bennett's “People.” She made a memorable appearance in Cardiff in November 2014 speaking and reading in tribute to Caradog Prichard's “Un Nos Ola Leuad.”

The material is rich and important. Sadly it is let down by a tabloid treatment in a book that is mainly a rampage through the press cuttings. Siân Phillips does not feature in the acknowledgements and there is hardly a clue to the inner life. The most accomplished aspect of the book is the cover photograph, the work of Wales' David Hurn for Magnum. The proper biography remains to be written.

Attention to the art is occasional. Alcohol predominates with carousings with Richards Burton and Harris, an entire weekend of binging with Michael Caine. Off duty from filming “Lord Jim” O'Toole wheels a rickshaw and driver into the lobby of Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel at two in the morning to buy him a drink. In a rare moment the author locates a quotation that gets under the carapace of alcoholism. “What does anyone get out of being drunk? It’s an anaesthetic. It diminishes the pain.” But the nature of the pain goes unexplored.

The authorial language is colloquial to say the least. “He had his eye on a pretty lass, barely sixteen, who showed up with a wild-looking individual with flaming red hair called Keith Waterhouse.” A disagreement on a film set between star and director is reported as “[Jack] Hawkins thought [David ]Lean was talking bollocks.” The assessment of the director is stark. David Lean…as a director…could be a real bastard, someone who tested people to the nth degree, gave them hell.” Over some contractual manoeuvring “when it was discovered what had happened the shit really did hit the fan.”

The preference for an informal prose starts early. At RADA on a first morning the young actor is “standing in the foyer…what forms to fill, all that stuff.” Meanwhile fellow students pass by. One is “a blonde bombshell in slacks; his eyes were on stalks.” RADA gives its departing students a little blue book. “Goodness knows what O’Toole did with the thing, chucked it into the bin most likely.”

Sellers prefers film to theatre. He is in the majority there and lets slip his view on Shakespeare in a proposed “Hamlet”. “Olivier also insisted on the uncut version on stage, five bloody hours on stage. When O'Toole does get to play Hamlet the description is remarkable. “It was six blasted nights and two sodding matinees”.

The book ventures occasionally into items of film history. Albert Finney was screen tested for T E Lawrence, the process taking four days and costing thousands. For the Sharif role other unlikely actors included Horst Buchholz, Alain Delon and Maurice Ronet. But the judgements are unreliable. “How to Steal a Million” is undervalued considerably- “deliberately lightweight the main attraction is the double act of Audrey and O’Toole.” Of Geoffrey in “the Lion in Winter” he is “a nasty, devious piece of work, typical middle son.” Getting to “the Stunt Man” the critique skims the surface with “by turns crazy, sophisticated, surreal and base, it is a thoroughly entertaining jigsaw puzzle that demands repeated viewing. The cast are uniformly excellent but this is O’Toole’s gig.” The last noun is popular. In another production various directors are under consideration. “Ultimately [John] Huston got the whole gig.”

An interesting aspect of the editing is that women actors are tagged by first name and men- Harris, Finch, Burton- by surname. Thus “Siân didn’t touch the stuff. The first thing O’Toole did to the poor girl was initiate her into the dark arts of boozing.” As for the marriage “he was never going to be a straightforward nine to five guy, that she knew”. It is remarkable that a treatment that divides the gender should go out in our era under the name of a venerable name in publishing.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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