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Friday , December 7 , 2012
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Gielgoodies! The Wit and Wisdom & Gaffes of John Gielgud
Compiled by Jonathan Croall, Oberon, £12.99

John Gielgud was one of the best actors on the British stage in the 20th century. His fame and his talent were matched only by those of Laurence Olivier. But many believed that Gielgud was Olivier’s better as an actor especially because he commanded an unmatched voice and was a more cerebral actor. What is not so well known is that Gielgud was an outstanding wit, occasionally an unwitting one. He was notorious for his gaffes. But there is the lingering suspicion that comments that were seen as gaffes may have actually been intended as barbs. But with Gielgud, it was impossible to tell.

This book has been lovingly compiled and every page of it is an unalloyed delight. Simon Callow writes a prologue to the volume. As a young actor, he met Gielgud in the dressing room of the Duke of York’s theatre. He recalls the meeting thus: “It was like running across the White Rabbit — but a White Rabbit that had read all of Proust and acted half of Shakespeare, and was drenched in poetry and music and art. The raffishness and the naughtiness and the delight in gossip, ancient and modern, belonged to another century; and yet, however sharp the barbs seemed, the presiding atmosphere was of sheer joie de vivre, of irrepressible exuberance. There was boyishness and silliness to be sure; but there was no malice. The Mozartian music of his voice cast a sparkle and an elegance over everything.’’

It was at that first meeting that Gielgud said of Ingrid Bergman, “Poor, dear Ingrid — fluent in five languages and she can’t act in any one of them.’’ Having delivered that devastating comment, he went on to remember Rubenstein playing Chopin in the 1920s, “and his eyes suddenly welled up with tears’’.

There are far too many gems in this book to reproduce in a short review. But there are some that demand space. Gielgud bumped into Alec Guinness, then a young star, in Piccadilly and said, “I can’t think why you want to play big parts. Why don’t you stick to the little people you do so well.’’ Gaffe, barb or simple good advice? Of Olivier, he once remarked, “He’s rather a cold man, but he writes very good letters.’’ About a famous actress, he said, “Someone like Sybil Thorndike never forgets anybody. She even remembers people she met in Australia.’’

During rehearsal for Oedipus directed by Peter Brook, the latter suggested that the cast should explore various themes. One day the theme was Shock. Each actor had to say the most shocking thing he could think of. When it was Gielgud’s term, he said, deadpan, “We open in two week’s time.’’

In another rehearsal for the same play, Irene Worth, playing Jocasta, said she would need a plinth to impale herself. Gielgud, falling about with laughter, said: “Plinth Philip or Plinth Charles?’’ His political incorrectness was legendary but also outrageously funny. Travelling behind a lorry carrying logs of wood, he giggled and asked, “I just wonder where the nigger is in that woodpile?’’

And of course, he could be naughty. Asked about the two essential qualities of acting, he replied, “I would say feeling and timing.’’ Then he added, “I understand it’s the same in many other walks of life.’’ At St Tropez in a topless beach, he dared Helen Osborne, “Go on risk it. If you do it, I’ll take off my sun hat.’’

This book is a rollicking good read. With John Gielgud you always feel good.