The Letters of John Gielgud, adapted by Doreen Estall

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BBC Radio 7, 3-7 January 2011
Read by Derek Jacobi, this selection covered Gielgud's life from the early 1950s till his death in 2000. Unlike his illustrious contemporary Laurence Olivier, Gielgud was born into a theatrical family, which gave him a head-start as far as his career was concerned. He made his name in classical roles, interspersed with the odd West End success in the 1930s such as Richard of Bordeaux. However Gielgud did not become a major film star like Olivier, even though he established himself as a reliable character late in life with roles like the butler Hobson in the original version of Arthur (1981).
Gielgud's letters revealed him as a lonely man, despite possessing many friends of both sexes. He had several long-time lovers, including Paul Anstey, but his peripatetic life - flitting between New York and London for various stage commitments - meant lengthy separations. Gielgud sometimes looked for incidental pleasures in the gay communities of both cities, but often came to grief. In 1952 he was arrested in London for soliciting; some years later in New York he was the victim of a blackmailer. Unlike Noel Coward - another illustrious gay man only five years his senior - Gielgud never had the support of a 'family' (including boyfriends, a secretary as well as numerous female acquaintances) that could sustain him through difficult times.
Like Coward, Gielgud could be waspish attimes, making cruel judgments on people and things he did not like. He saw the original Broadway production of The Sound of Music, and rejected it as sentimental twaddle, denouncing its star, Mary Martin, for her sickly-sweet performance as Maria. He also had ambivalent feelings towards his stage contemporaries: while recognizing Olivier's talent, he was quick to find fault with characterizations he did not like, such as Olivier's Malvolio at Stratford in the mid-1950s. Gielgud was also particularly harsh on Vivien Leigh, who had the impossible task of sharing a stage with her husband at a time when she was in an emotionally fragile state.
Gielgud's letters reveal very little about his own performances, and how they were created, or about the actor's views on the director's craft. Perhaps Gielgud was not very interested in these issues, or perhaps he was at heart a private person, despite his public image. Even in the epistolary form he remained reluctant to disclose his feelings.
Jacobi's readings emphasized Gielgud's basic contradictions - a great actor troubled by his sexuality at a time when homosexuality was still illegal, a superb Shakespearean interpreter jealous of his colleagues, and a noted director who could not (or would not) talk about his approach. The producer was Emma Harding.