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First published in 2017 by Oberon Books Ltd

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Copyright © W. Sydney Robinson, 2017

W. Sydney Robinson is hereby identified as author of this work in accordance with section 77 of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988. The author has asserted his moral rights.

The Good Companions: Copyright © Ronald Harwood, 1972

The Dresser: Copyright © Ronald Harwood Limited, 1980

Another Time: Copyright © Ronald Harwood Limited, 1989

After the Lions: Copyright © Ronald Harwood Limited, 1982

The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold: Copyright © The Estate of Evelyn Waugh and Ronald Harwood Limited, 1983

Interpreters: Copyright © Ronald Harwood Limited, 1986

J. J. Farr: Copyright © Ronald Harwood Limited, 1988

Every effort has been made to trace copyright holders and to obtain their permission for the use of copyright material. The publisher apologizes for any errors or omissions and would be grateful if notified of any corrections that should be incorporated in future reprints or editions of this book.

You may not copy, store, distribute, transmit, reproduce or otherwise make available this publication (or any part of it) in any form, or binding or by any means (print, electronic, digital, optical, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of the publisher. Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and civil claims for damages.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

HB ISBN: 9781786820433

E ISBN: 9781786820440

Cover photo credit: Jay Brooks http://www.jaybrooks.net/

Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY

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Contents

Prologue

Act One: WALKING THE BOARDS

1.) A Man from the Colonies

2.) Uncle Lionel

3.) ‘Clean My Boots!’

Act Two: A STAR IS BORN

4.) Early Magic

5.) ‘Mine for the Asking’

Act Three: BEYOND OLYMPIA

6.) Show Business

7.) Man of Letters

INTERVAL

8.) The Good Companion

Act Four: SARTOR RESARTUS: The Tailor Retailored

9.) The Dresser

10.) With the Greats

Act Five: AUTUMN TRIUMPH

11.) The Pianist

12.) Arise, Sir Ronald

CURTAIN CALL

13.) At Home

Acknowledgements

Major Works By Ronald Harwood

Endnotes

Index

To my subject

Talk of me sometimes. Speak well of me. Actors live on only in the memory of others. Speak well of me. The Dresser, Act Two

List of Illustrations

1.)

Ronald Harwood’s parents, Ike and Bella Horwitz, had little in common besides their Jewish heritage and would often go for days without exchanging conversation. (Ronald Harwood collection)

2.)

Ronald Harwood with his devoted mother in Trafalgar Square, mid-1950s. (RH collection)

3.)

The born performer playing the guitar in his aunt’s garden in Montagu, South Africa, April 1938. (The British Library)

4.)

The inspiration for The Dresser, Sir Donald Wolfit, as captured by the camera in an expansive mood, mid-1960s. (RH collection)

5.)

... and as depicted by the satirical cartoonist Ronald Searle upon the stage, 1957. (Sayle Screen Limited)

6/7.)

‘What do we play tomorrow, Norman?’ Tom Courtenay and Albert Finney in the film version of The Dresser (1983). (United Archives GmbH / Alamy Stock Photo)

8.)

‘There’s nothing you can tell me about the English.’ Ronald Harwood discusses his libretto of The Good Companions with J. B. Priestley, early 1970s. (The British Library)

9.)

‘I could have made an actor of you!’ Ronald Harwood’s first Hollywood screenplay, A High Wind in Jamaica (1965), starring Anthony Quinn (above left), James Coburn (above right) and Lila Kedrova also marked the screen debut of a young Martin Amis. (INTERFOTO / Alamy Stock Photo)

10.)

Alec Guinness. (Moviestore collection Ltd / Alamy Stock Photo)

11.)

André Previn. (AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

12.)

Tony Curtis and Zsa Zsa Gabor in Ronald Harwood’s 1966 comedy Drop Dead Darling – the pair’s relationship off-screen was even more dysfunctional than as depicted onscreen. (Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

13.)

Ken Hughes. (Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

14.)

Natasha Harwood (née Riehle).

15/16.)

‘Stay with us!’ Michael Elliott, founder and pioneer of the Royal Exchange, Manchester, helped launch Ronald Harwood’s career as a major dramatist and, later, assisted with the making of his 13-part BBC documentary All the World’s a Stage (1983). (Courtesy of Rosalind Knight)

17.)

Ronald Harwood in his study at Berrygrove, Liss, 1982. (Homer Sykes Archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

18.)

‘Well, if he can: I can.’ Ronald Harwood (right) on holiday with his fellow playwrights Harold Pinter (centre) and Simon Gray (left), late 1970s. (RH collection)

19.)

‘Are you totally insane?’ Italian director Franco Zeffirelli was to be the subject of a biopic by Ronald Harwood, but the pair could not agree on a suitable theme for the movie. (AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

20.)

Harvey Keitel, Moritz Bleibtreu and Stellan Skarsgård in the film adaptation of Ronald Harwood’s play about the German conductor Wilhelm Furtwängler, Taking Sides, 2001. (Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

21.)

Stellan Skarsgård as Dr Furtwängler. (Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo)

22.)

‘He’s a darling man.’ Adrien Brody as Władysław Szpilman in The Pianist (2002). (AF archive / Alamy Stock Photo)

23.)

‘You crazy? That’s terrible!’ Ronald Harwood with Roman Polanski, who directed both The Pianist and Harwood’s 2005 adaptation of Oliver Twist. (Lebrecht Music and Arts Photo Library / Alamy Stock Photo)

24.)

‘Oh, don’t take any notice of him.’ Ronald Harwood and his wife, Natasha, on the red carpet. (Frazer Harrison/Getty)

25.)

‘Why didn’t you come into the back room?’ Ronald Harwood feeling strangely downcast after his Oscars triumph, 2003. (RH collection)

26.)

‘Every studio in Hollywood wanted me.’ Ronald Harwood with Norman Jewison, who directed his 2003 film The Statement starring Michael Caine, Tilda Swinton and Jeremy Northam. (George Pimentel/Getty)

27.)

Hugh Jackman and Nicole Kidman in Ronald Harwood’s biggest critical flop, Australia (2008). (Entertainment Pictures / Alamy Stock Photo)

28.)

‘He’s a very talented man.’ Dustin Hoffman (centre) directing Ronald Harwood’s 2012 film adaptation of his play Quartet, starring Michael Gambon (right), Tom Courtenay, Maggie Smith and Billy Connolly. (Photo 12 / Alamy Stock Photo)

29.)

Sheridan Smith, Maggie Smith, Dustin Hoffman, Pauline Collins, Tom Courtenay and Billy Connolly at the film’s London premiere. (PEOPLE PRESS / Alamy Stock Photo)

30.)

‘You’ve bowed enough already.’ Ronald Harwood receiving his knighthood from Prince Charles, 2011. (Charles Green Photography)

31.)

Ronald Harwood with (from left to right) his daughter-in-law Louise Harwood, Natasha Harwood and his grandson Isaac Harwood. (Charles Green Photography)

33.)

Ian McKellen, Anthony Hopkins, Ronald Harwood and Richard Eyre on the set of the 2015 BBC adaptation of The Dresser. (RH collection)

34.)

Reece Shearsmith and Ken Stott in the 2016 production of The Dresser at the Duke of York’s Theatre, London. (Geraint Lewis / Alamy Stock Photo)

35.)

With Natasha. (RH collection)

Prologue

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‘You will always get a decent screenplay out of Ronnie Harwood,’ an American movie mogul once declared, ‘– but I wouldn’t give him Jurassic Park IV.’

To the author of The Pianist, The Dresser and Quartet, there could be few higher accolades. For Sir Ronald Harwood – playwright, screenplay writer, novelist, biographer and Grand Old Man of the Garrick Club – has always believed drama to be about more than computer gimmickry and fist-pumping action. In a career spanning over six decades, he has held fast to those often-reviled traditions – those of Coward and Rattigan, Shakespeare and Jonson, Sophocles and Euripides – in striving, above all else, to effect the union of dramatist, actor and audience through the magical deployment of ordinary characters thrown into the most extraordinary circumstances.

This self-conscious rootedness in the past has frequently alienated Sir Ronald from his contemporaries. Not a man for the ‘graduate seminar’ or ‘Eng. Lit.’, he shares little obviously in common with writers of the experimental school such as Sir Tom Stoppard and the late Harold Pinter. Still less does Sir Ronald resemble those faded ‘angry young men’, Sir Arnold Wesker and John Osborne, who achieved such prominence at the outset of their careers by railing against ‘the Establishment’. When, in the summer of 2016, the veteran playwright used an interview in The Times to lament the ‘astonishingly stupid’ modern practice of casting female actors for male roles, he found himself condemned in the same newspaper for succumbing to a ‘strange pedantic realism’. Harwood prefers to hark back to the unashamedly uncomplicated theatre of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries; before George Bernard Shaw – ‘a pernicious influence’ – began the trend of preaching politics to squirming audiences.1

To glance at the listings of almost any theatrical journal is to see the quiet success of Sir Ronald’s lonely counter-revolution. His most celebrated play, The Dresser, has been adapted for both television and cinema, and has recently enjoyed its sixteenth major stage production in Britain (at the Duke of York’s Theatre starring Ken Stott and Reece Shearsmith); its fifth in Japan, and its third in Mexico. His screenplays and TV dramas, meanwhile, have delighted millions of viewers across the globe, winning him in the process a host of prizes, including a BAFTA for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly and an Academy Award for The Pianist.

With these remarkable achievements in mind, it seems incredible that, in this age of celebrity, Sir Ronald remains something of an outsider in the country to which he emigrated in 1951. But the British have never felt a personal affinity with the glitterati of Hollywood. From Charlie Chaplin to Robert Pattinson, the stars which these islands have exported are usually lost forever: ‘citizens of the world’, they might grandly say – but in truth the majority have simply assumed an American identity.

Not so Sir Ronnie. A man of obsessions, he has no greater love than for England and her people – especially, it must be added, her ‘well-born’ people. Yet this betokens no overnight transformation. Even as a child growing up in an insalubrious corner of Cape Town, South Africa, he was always sure to dress smartly, ‘speak proper’ and generally conduct himself in the manner in which he intended to go on. When he later achieved fame in the movies, he never considered, as have so many before him, relocating to the city described by those alien to its magnetism as ‘Tinseltown’. To this day he remains surprisingly little known even in that bastion of all things showbiz.

Such is the lot of many a solitary screenplay writer. ‘Before it’s written,’ he has revealingly lamented, ‘you are everything; as soon as it’s handed in you are no one.’ But the list of his collaborators is legion: practically every major dramatist from J. B. Priestley to Roman Polanski, and every film star from Laurence Olivier to Sheridan Smith, has at some stage crossed his path professionally. I confess that all this has sometimes overwhelmed his biographer: the length and breadth of Sir Ronald’s activities would crush even a literary Hercules. How many writers of note today, one wonders, have press cuttings stretching back to the summer of 1954? It is sobering to reflect that even at that time Harwood was a veteran of the theatre company founded by the legendary actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit. More than six decades on, the wizened playwright shows no sign of slowing down.

This energy and enthusiasm has been invaluable in the writing of this book, but neither its subject nor its author has sought to create a work of hagiography. At our first meeting – about my critical biography of the Victorian investigative journalist W. T. Stead, Muckraker – Sir Ronald casually mentioned that he had been asked to write his memoirs, but had lost the desire to go on with them. We both came to the conclusion that it would be better to allow a biographer to work his material into a different kind of book. Since I happened to have been on hand at the right moment, he agreed to delegate this task to me. ‘You can write whatever you like,’ he said bravely: ‘I have never done or written anything which I would like to have covered up,’ he continued, ‘– except perhaps that libretto I did for André Previn.’

That generous sentiment provides the keynote for this biography. While there will doubtless be successors to Speak Well of Me, no one will be able to say that material was actively hidden from Sir Ronald Harwood’s first biographer. And, whatever the skill and ingenuity of those future critics may be, they will not have access to the greatest source of all – the man himself. To him, and those who so generously shared their memories of this theatrical titan, this book is dedicated.

Act One:
WALKING THE BOARDS

1

A Man from the Colonies

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We are talking about a city, about Mecca, about Jerusalem, about London, about England.
Another Time, Act One

It was a bleak, wet day in post-war London. A tanned seventeen-year-old named Ronnie Harwood stood gazing at the bright hoarding outside the Wyndham’s Theatre in London’s West End. ‘The Love of Four Colonels by Peter Ustinov’, he baldly read. Although he had only been in the country for twenty-four hours, the youth already knew that this was something he wished to be a part of. It did not matter that the building was black with soot, that its windows rattled as the buses heaved along the Charing Cross Road, or that the flower girls mobbed every passer-by. Ronnie was home at last. He was going to the theatre.

Nothing could have upset this adventure – not even the solemn face at the box office which informed him that the matinee was already sold out. Surely, but surely, there was a seat somewhere? ‘Of course,’ the gentleman suggested, ‘we do have boxes available. Price: seven pounds.’ Seven pounds! That was nearly all the money Ronnie had in the world: a third of the annual fees for the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, enough to live on for months – almost as much as the cost of his ticket to England. But the young man was loath to appear fazed. ‘That would be fine,’ he blithely responded, before emptying the entire contents of his wallet onto the counter. A lifetime later the visitor would sit in the same box to see one of his own plays performed by some of the most distinguished actors of his generation.

The tale rivals Dr Johnson’s assertion to David Garrick that he had come up to London with more half pence in his pocket than the impecunious actor. This is of a piece with Sir Ronald Harwood. For he belongs, both spiritually and artistically, more to the bohemian world of the eighteenth century than to that of Celebrity Big Brother, X Factor and The Graham Norton Show.

His journey has been a long one. Born on 9 November 1934 at Sea Point, a modest suburb to the north-west of Cape Town, he was known for the first seventeen years of his life as Ronald Horwitz. His parents, Ike and Bella, were first-generation Jewish immigrants who had, either personally or by parentage, fled the notorious pogroms which engulfed Eastern Europe during the closing years of the nineteenth century. In the case of Ike this had entailed being placed in a coffin in order to be smuggled out of his native village of Plungé, Lithuania, as a young man at the turn of the century. Around the same time his future wife, the daughter of Polish refugees, Adolph and Eva Pepper, was born in the East End of London. Shortly thereafter Bella and her family emigrated to the Cape, where she grew up in an atmosphere of genteel poverty before marrying Ike, a commercial traveller ten years her senior, in the last year of the First World War. The couple went on to have two children, Eve (‘Evvy’) Leonora and Harold Ralph, before the birth of Ronnie almost two decades after their nuptials. The Benjamin of the family was known simply as ‘the afterthought’.

Ike and Bella had little in common besides being Jewish, but even this oddly served as a barrier. For the Horwitzes were both frum – strict, Yiddish-speaking and Orthodox – as well as Litvaks – uneducated, rural and non-European. The Peppers could scarcely refrain from looking down on such people. ‘They aspired to the culture of Europe,’ recalls Harwood, ‘and were highly educated.’ Whereas the most distinguished of Ike’s forebears had been a Chief Rabbi with an eccentric distaste for turkey – he believed this meat to be unclean after seeing a large bird eating from the ground like a pig – the Peppers listed among their kith a Nobel Laureate, Dr Paul Ehrlich. This world-famous scientist, a cousin of Bella’s mother, had received his prize in recognition of his pioneering cure for syphilis – the so-called ‘silver bullet’ technique. It may be supposed that some of the liberalism and sophistication native to the Peppers derived from Dr Ehrlich’s mature approach to all matters sexual. So uninhibited was the good doctor that he once explained the nature of his research to a half-deaf countess. ‘Ah, syphilis,’ she finally grasped: ‘What a shame – if you had discovered the cure earlier my poor husband would still be alive.’

The unhappy family lived in a small ground-floor apartment on a main road, Victoria Road, overlooked by the Lion’s Head mountain. Harwood would later recreate the exact dimensions of this cramped home in his most autobiographical play, Another Time. ‘The likeness was uncanny,’ reflects one of Harwood’s oldest companions. Visitors approached the maisonette through a scraggy front garden, which abruptly ended where the veranda had been converted by means of frosted glass panes into a makeshift bedroom. Beyond the front door there was a dark, hexagonal entrance hall – the dining room and living area – from whence there followed two more bedrooms and a tiny kitchen. ‘We lived on top of each other,’ recalls Harwood morosely, ‘and the atmosphere in the flat was sometimes unbearable.’ But of all the inconveniences of this cheek-by-jowl arrangement, the greatest was the refusal of Ike and Bella to exchange even the simplest conversation with one another. The words ‘ask your father’ became painfully familiar to young Ronnie, and it was not long before this human carrier-pigeon was told to bunk down with his father on account of his mother being kept awake by his snoring. ‘I now assume,’ reflects Harwood, ‘that she had other reasons for not wanting to share a room with my father.’

For Ike was not an ideal husband. When his commanding mother, Sarah (known to his wife as ‘the octopus’), died shortly after his marriage he had a severe nervous breakdown from which he never fully recovered. As well as making it almost impossible for him to continue working, the trauma exacerbated an undiagnosed cerebral condition which manifested itself in his gammy left hand. Hereafter it fell to Bella, a clerk at the Electricity Board, to provide for the family. The displaced paterfamilias passed out the remainder of his days loitering in the streets, drinking cold cups of tea and thumbing through ancient encyclopaedias. Always short of cash, he once appeared faint with hunger at his daughter’s workplace, a dance studio, pleading for money to buy himself lunch. ‘His sense of failure must have been immense,’ says Harwood ruefully. But there were times when Ike showed traces of a steelier determination. To the amazement of his wife and children, he enlisted in the Army at the outbreak of the Second World War – ‘Didn’t they see your bad hand?’ asked his incredulous wife; ‘They didn’t ask, so I didn’t show,’ came the laconic reply. On another occasion Ike snubbed the haughty rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue on Marais Road by removing himself and his children to the new Reform synagogue, headed by a young American named Dr David Sherman. Such actions showed that, despite his obvious limitations, Ike took pride in himself and his family.

This was all to the good for little Ronnie. ‘I was spoilt rotten,’ he recalls with a toothy grin. Celebrated in the family circle for his ‘film-star’ appearance, the child was petted and complimented almost continually from the first. Even with the family’s strained finances, nothing from piano lessons to the finest clothes was denied to him. Only from the vantage of the present does Harwood recognize the sacrifices which these small luxuries must have entailed for his parents. ‘It never crossed my mind that we were poor,’ he recalls sadly. ‘I’ve always been insanely self-confident,’ he continues more cheerfully, ‘and even as a child regarded myself as being extremely lucky.’ A photograph of young Ronnie strumming a toy guitar in his aunt’s front garden suggests this to be no exaggeration. Neatly dressed and exceptionally well-groomed, the merry three-year-old exudes the same impish mirth that he retains even today.

By far the most significant of the indulgences heaped upon the future playwright were the elocution classes arranged by his mother with a local actress and voice coach, Mrs Sybil Marks. Without the influence of this cultured British émigré it is hard to envisage that Harwood would ever have moved to England or pursued a career in the theatre. ‘Everything she said,’ he recalls today, ‘was either dramatic or seductive’ – a winning combination for the impressionable boy who fast became one of her star pupils. Encouraged by her and his mother to enter various recital competitions, the born performer first won a degree of acclaim with a rendition of There’s a mouse in the house’ at the age of seven. A few years later he found himself acting out scenes from Shakespeare’s King John alongside another local starlet, the future Sir Nigel Hawthorne of Yes, Minister fame. ‘So dazzled was I by my own brilliance,’ boasts Harwood disarmingly, ‘that he made little impression on me as an actor, but I liked him a good deal and enjoyed working on our scenes.’ The pair would next meet amid the pomp and ceremony of Buckingham Palace.

But this is anticipating. For the time being, Ronnie Horwitz lived in a world of Boers and Afrikaners; English-speakers and colonialists, blacks and Bantu. Even for a boy with little awareness of politics, the grim shadow of apartheid, which was to be introduced by the Nationalist Government in 1948, was already discernible in the Cape. This was largely the doing of the country’s Dutch-speaking elite, the Afrikaners, who regarded the black majority as ‘children’ needful of protection and subjugation. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the last pro-British prime minister, General Smuts, appeased his more hard-line colleagues by keeping the native population in a state of near-total servitude. So extreme was the resulting economic disparity that even the poorest European families, such as the Horwitzes, could afford a black maid to help with the housework. In later years Harwood would particularly recall one of these women, Annie, who unwittingly became a major influence. The only words on the subject of racial politics uttered at home were Ike’s: ‘Thank God it’s not us!’ – a view common among the various white minorities of the Rainbow Nation.

Harwood does not claim retrospective virtue when discussing these matters. ‘People say that they opposed apartheid,’ he sighs, ‘but the truth is that few whites of my age were even conscious that it existed.’ It was the banality of the discrimination – the overcrowded ‘coloured’ railway carriages and the informally segregated shops and restaurants – which most affected the future dramatist. As a member of the racial elite only by default, the child had other worries to contend with. Among the most oppressive of these was the attempt by a teacher at his junior school, a Mr van der Merwe, to convert him and the other Jewish pupils to Christianity. ‘He threatened us with hellfire and eternal damnation if we resisted,’ remembers Harwood, ‘– which of course we did.’ This plucky defiance, much encouraged and admired by his proud mother, not only sharpened the boy’s inner resolve, it also developed his latent wit. Asked to select a favourite passage from the Old Testament, Ronnie could always be relied upon to furnish the overzealous pedagogue with a suitably absurd text. Particularly he recalls Isaiah, chapter 36, verse 12: ‘... [H]ath he not sent me to the men that sit upon the wall, that they may eat their own dung, and drink their own urine?’ A little later Harwood got even more laughs by directing the unfortunate van der Merwe to the passage in Genesis in which Onan is struck down for spilling his own seed. ‘He fell for it every time,’ chuckles Harwood dryly, ‘– he was not the brightest of men.’

Having survived these ordeals, Ronnie progressed to the senior school, Sea Point Boys High, where he continued to make an impression as a joker, Anglophile and aspiring intellectual. It was to be predicted that given the opportunity to acquire the accoutrements of a classical education, the young man would seize it with eager hands. But his Latin master, Mr Thompson, proved to be a far more considerable adversary than the simple van der Merwe. At a time when his countrymen had only recently been ostensible allies in the war against Hitler, this defiant Afrikaner thought nothing of sporting a toothbrush moustache in honour of the German dictator. Needless to say, ‘Tommy’ – as he was known behind his back – did not take to Ronnie Horwitz. Trouble began almost straightaway when the master introduced the class to the verb ‘amo’. ‘Puellam amo,’ he intoned: ‘I love the girl.’ Ronnie sniggered. Even today Harwood shudders as he recalls Tommy’s sharp reaction. Striding over with a clenched fist and bulging eyes, the brutish man screeched: ‘You think it’s funny, hey? Well I’ll tell you what’s very funny. You haven’t stopped sucking from your mummy’s titties, that’s what’s very funny!’ before savagely clipping the child across the head. Another boy caught gazing out of the window was suspended from that aperture by his ankles until he wet himself. ‘You’ve got a better view of the view now!’ boomed Tommy, ‘hey, hey, hey?’

It was not long before a formal complaint was lodged against Mr Thompson. This came from the parents of Ronnie’s closest friend at the school, Gerald Mosselson, who lived in a more luxurious home nearer the top of the Lion’s Head. Even more than his introduction to Mrs Marks, this was a turning point for the future playwright. For it brought him into the orbit of the theatrical director and most influential English teacher in the school, Mr Quinn, who was known, on account of his rough appearance and accent, as ‘Cowboy Quinn’. While their fellow students were plodding through their Latin declensions with Tommy, a group of boys dominated by Ronnie and Gerald studied literature – mostly English literature. It was an awakening. A true aficionado, Harwood devoured the works of the Bronte sisters, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens with the same gusto with which he approached such staples as The Famous Five and Biggies. ‘I cannot pretend it was the elegant writing that first caught my attention,’ he remembers of his first rapturous embrace of the Western canon. Instead it was the intriguing openings, followed by gripping narrative, which ensnared him. ‘A shot rang vout!’ he explains – ‘And then? And then? And then?’ Almost unconsciously, the schoolboy began to grasp the meaning of plot and characterization. In later years he would find his intuition rationalized most eloquently by E. M. Forster: ‘“The King died and then the Queen died” is a story. “The King died and then the Queen died of grief” is a plot.’ For over sixty years that has been a guiding principle in all Harwood’s work.

Forster’s kingly lesson could not have been more apt for the author whose obsessive love of the theatre can be traced back to the most famous of all plays royal: Hamlet. This tragedy entered his miniature universe unexpectedly when the film version, directed by Sir Laurence Olivier, appeared in the year 1948 at his favourite cinema, the Alhambra on Riebeeck Street. Although the young man went along with his mother hoping to see a detective story –‘Who killed the king?’ – he fast became aware that he had come into contact with something of a hitherto unimaginable brilliance. ‘It was electrifying,’ reminisces Harwood of the occasion. ‘The actors ceased to be actors – Basil Sydney was Claudius, Eileen Herlie, a real-life Gertrude; the others, too: Jean Simmons, Terence Morgan, Norman Wooland, Stanley Holloway, Peter Cushing ...’ he reels off without pause. But it was the lead role, played by Olivier himself, which really stuck in the boy’s imagination. Before the cinema managers had reverted to their standard fare of spaghetti Westerns and Hollywood romances, the fourteen-year-old had seen the film seven or eight times; sometimes with Gerald Mosselson, but more often alone.

Gerald and Ronnie were soon to embark on careers as actor-directors of their own. This was encouraged by Gerald’s father, an agent for 20th Century Fox, who built them a model theatre in which they performed scaled-down versions of the plays they had discussed with Cowboy Quinn. ‘The Royal Acropolis’, as their toy playhouse was known, was fitted with fairy lights, glittering cardboard and a range of elaborate props scarcely unworthy of the theatre’s triumphant name. Upon its boards plaster figurines controlled by Gerald were given the breath of life by Ronnie, who read aloud from their school editions of works by playwrights as various as Sophocles, Shakespeare and Shaw.

Harwood is the first to acknowledge that there were some drawbacks to learning so much of the classical repertoire in this way. When, for instance, Tom Stoppard burst onto the London theatre scene in 1967 with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead, his as yet little-known South African-born contemporary was mortified after admitting his bafflement about the play’s title – the characters, it emerged, had been cut from Olivier’s seminal film. Yet Harwood has never been embarrassed or inhibited by these occasional blots in his copybook. ‘Once I had devoted myself to being an author,’ he elucidates, ‘I read everything – even books like Ulysses, which I soon discovered few well-educated people had actually read.’ Still later, Harwood remembered his Rosencrantz gaffe when making the major cuts which are necessary when adapting any novel or play for the big screen.

But of all the influences on the latent dramatist, the greatest was a modest publication entitled Theatre World. His subscription to this journal was another small extravagance made by his mother, who could already see that her son’s future was likely to be on the stage. ‘It’s easy to be a big fish in a little pond,’ she said after one of his early theatrical triumphs, ‘but if you really want to know how good you are, you will have to go to London.’ Such a prospect was by now becoming a serious possibility: ‘If I have to eat one meal a week, you’ll go,’ declares a thinly disguised version of Bella in Another Time. This encouragement doubtless added to the excitement of thumbing through the pages of Theatre World in the glass-plated stuffiness of Ronnie’s makeshift bedroom, his father snoring all the while. Breathlessly the fanatic gazed at the monochrome photographic essays of such notable West End productions as Ralph Richardson’s Richard II starring Alec Guinness as the king and Donald Wolfit’s career-defining Tamburlaine the Great. Little did the reader know that before long these giants would be counted among his colleagues.

Ronnie’s yearning for England impacted on his daily life in various ways. For one thing, he ceased taking much interest in school or schoolwork ‘My discontent had its source partly in what I now see as unjustifiable arrogance,’ reminisces Harwood, ‘believing instinctively that what I was being taught was of no earthly use to me.’ He also became increasingly remote from his small circle of friends, who were now focusing their attentions on passing their School Certificate examinations. Only the occasional evening tinkering with the Royal Acropolis interrupted the young man’s relentless circuit of elocution classes and amateur dramatics – sometimes he was even called upon to take a role in a semi-professional show. While his classmates sweated over their textbooks, the loner preferred to dream of London and the theatre. On free afternoons he would often wander down to the docks and gaze at the names on the ships – Southampton, Portsmouth and Liverpool. ‘Somehow,’ he says today, ‘I believed myself to have been born in the wrong country – I desperately wanted to go to England, where I thought I could make a name for myself’ Mournfully, the young Hamlet would spit into the sea, dreaming of the distant shores upon which his spittle would be washed up.

As Ronnie reached the end of his final year at school, two life-changing events took place which helped make this fantasy a reality: the death of his father and his invitation to be interviewed at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London. Harwood contends that the first of these developments did not at the time seem likely to further his chances of leaving South Africa, but in retrospect it clearly allowed both him and his mother to leave the colony – within only a few years Bella would follow her son to the centre of Britain’s crumbling empire. In any case, Ike’s passing marked the end of an era in the Horwitz household in other ways. The dreaded, long-anticipated event occurred within only a few days of the marriage of the eldest child, Ralph, who had served as an RAF pilot during the war, to an attractive young woman called Nola Oliver. On the evening of the celebration, Ike collapsed in a fit of coughing, and was duly diagnosed with acute bronchitis. A few days later a psychologist suggested that there was something more seriously wrong with Ike. After years of being told that his afflictions were ‘mind over matter’, he was now sent to a specialist who found his brain to be encrusted with a non-malignant tumour known as meningioma. The patient was last seen by his family shortly after enduring the arduous and dangerous procedure of trepanning. Drowsily but sweetly, he said to his wife: ‘Bella, get some sleep; you have very black rings under your eyes.’ In all their years of marriage, the fifty-nine-year-old had never commented on this distinctive feature of his long-suffering spouse.

The invitation from RADA followed soon after Ike’s demise. It provided the impetus needed to justify Ronnie’s long and expensive journey overseas. At the behest of Mrs Marks, a fund-raising concert was organized which raised over £90 to help her protégé on his way. A well-meaning teacher, meanwhile, took the boy aside to suggest that it would be advisable to adopt a less ‘foreign’ surname for his new life in England. After consulting Cowboy Quinn on the matter, Ronnie selected Harwood, remembering the precedent of Laurence Harvey, the famous South African actor who had been born Laurence Skikne. Considering these matters today, Harwood has no regrets. ‘I have been reproached for changing my name,’ he declares angrily, ‘as though I were trying to hide my Jewish origins; an accusation I find offensive.’ Besides the simple truth that there were, at that time, few working actors in Britain, or anywhere, with Jewish surnames, Harwood points out that these names are, in any case, arbitrary. Quoting the author Joseph Roth, he has written:

Don’t be surprised at the Jews’ lack of attachment to their names. They will change their names with alacrity ... For Jews their names have no value because they are not their names. Jews, Eastern Jews, have no names. They have compulsory aliases. Their true name is the one by which they are summoned to the Torah on the Sabbath and on holy days: their Jewish first name, and the Jewish first name of their father. Their family names, however, from Goldberg to Herschl, are pseudonyms foisted upon them. Governments have commanded Jews to have names. Does that make the names their own? If a Jew’s name is Nachman and he changes it to Norbert, what else is Norbert but camouflage? Is it anything more than a falsification? Does the chameleon feel any respect for the colours he continually keeps changing? The Jew changes Grünbaum to Greenboom. The shift in the vowels doesn’t upset him.2

So Ronnie Harwood he became. Boarding the Edinburgh Castle on the morning of 7 December 1951, the young man kissed farewell to each of his relations in turn – but not his devoted maid, Annie. Harwood has never forgiven himself for this concession to the social practices of the time. ‘It must have broken her heart,’ he bitterly sighs. Standing beside her on the quayside, Ronnie’s mother looked just as sad. ‘I cannot now remember if she waved me goodbye,’ he whispers.

As Harwood leaned over the bow of his mighty ship, he clapped eyes for practically the last time on South Africa. Only the sight of his brother pointing ostentatiously to his backside and forearm on the shore threatened to undermine the poignancy of the occasion. The gesture was a reminder of Ralphs oft-repeated judgement upon his youngest sibling: ‘The trouble with Ronnie is that he doesn’t know his arse from his elbow.’ The lonely voyager would have to learn such things fast – for he was about to enter into a larger, fiercer, brave new world.

2

Uncle Lionel

image

IRENE: Scorpio...
SIR: Good. Ambition, secretiveness, loyalty and capable
of great jealousy. Essential qualities for the theatre
.
The Dresser, Act Two

A ristotle held that art imitates life. So, too, does Ronnie Harwood. That might be all the famous playwright has in common with the immortal . philosopher, but the fact is essential. ‘Me, me, me,’ he muses cheerfully, ‘... I cannot help always writing about myself.’ To call this vanity would be an over-simplification. For no one who has travelled as far in life as Harwood could fail to make others aware of his experiences. Each of his plays and novels has been torn from a Nessus’ shirt of hardship, disappointment and failure.

These semi-autobiographical fragments are most illuminating when they are least obvious. Harwood has never been so blatant as to invent a character who longs for England, only to find himself lost and alone in his adopted homeland. We have instead to consider the case of Leonard Levine, who appears in his 1973 novel Articles of Faith. This character wishes to overcome the obstacle of his humble origins to win acclaim as a state prosecutor in Cape Town. He plays his part faultlessly: after racking up legal qualifications and setting up his own practice, he joins the Attorney-General’s office, where he quickly establishes himself as one of the most capable lawyers in the colony. Yet, when he falls in love with the daughter of a high-ranking judge, the thrusting young upstart is hurled back into the ghetto. ‘You are no longer employed here as of now!’ yells his boss on hearing that the young lady has fallen pregnant. Once again, Lennie has nothing.

The parallels with Harwood are painfully apparent. Although he kissed the ground when he disembarked from the Edinburgh Castle on his arrival at Southampton on Friday 21 December 1951, it was not long before the young South African realized that England was not exactly the country of his dreams. His brief conversations with the gruff officials on the quayside taught him first-hand that the subjects of King George VI were not universally welcoming towards foreigners. For, despite all his training and expectations, this is undoubtedly what Ronnie Harwood was.

He knew only one person in the country. This was Gerald Mosselson’s uncle, Lionel Bowman, who came to meet Harwood at Waterloo station that wet December morning. It was the beginning of one of the most important relationships of the future playwright’s life; one which would, in time, clear his way into the world of the theatre. Yet few could have predicted that this failed concert pianist, who had himself only recently emigrated to England, had it in him to set the ugly duckling on his way. ‘I don’t think he ever made any money from his vocation,’ opines Harwood, ‘nor did it ever cross my mind that I would either.’ Worse, by the standards of the time, was the fact that Uncle Lionel was a homosexual, living with another man, Raymond Marriott – an arrangement deemed criminal under English law for a further sixteen years. But Harwood was as yet unaware of Lionel’s sexuality. Even his unsqueamish mother could not have broached such a matter with him. ‘He’s effeminate,’ explained Bowman’s relations in the Cape. Considering this today, when even senior members of the judiciary can be married to persons of the same sex without comment, the veteran breaks off in bewilderment: ‘It was a different world.’

The irresistible question looms: was Harwood tempted to join the gay avant-garde? ‘No,’ he says firmly. For while his conversation is littered with as many ‘my dears’ as a vicar’s tea party, Harwood has always been exclusively attracted to what the French call le beau sexe. ‘We in the theatre used to have a way of saying that someone was gay,’ he says cheekily. In what the listener assumes to be an unrelated action, Harwood removes his glasses and licks his middle finger. ‘He’s a nice boy,’ he says, as he glides the moistened digit over one of his eyebrows. According to Harwood, many of these homosexual actors themselves preferred to be known as ‘queer’. ‘It gave them a secret identity,’ he explains without condescension. When it came to Lionel Bowman and Raymond Marriott, the young man accordingly presumed little and said less.

It was, however, fortunate that Uncle Lionel lived with another man. Had he been a successful pianist living quietly in the suburbs with a housewife, it is unlikely that the world would have heard any more of Ronnie Harwood. The reason was that R. B. Marriott, as Bowman’s partner was professionally known, happened to be the theatre critic for The Stage. This meant that Harwood’s unofficial guardian was scarcely less knowledgeable about the theatre than his esteemed companion. On their way to the YMCA off the Tottenham Court Road, where Harwood was to be staying, the two men discussed the latest plays. As landmarks such as Nelson’s Column flew past, it became apparent that the wide-eyed visitor knew a thing or two about the theatre himself. Suddenly aware of the young man’s precocity, Lionel explained with some embarrassment that he and Raymond had booked tickets for them to see a pantomime that evening – Cinderella. ‘Not what I would have selected,’ recalls Harwood haughtily. But it could not be helped. At the end of the show, Raymond tried to make up for the blunder by taking his guest backstage to meet a well-known double act known as the ‘Ugly Sisters’, Vic Ford and Chris Sheen. Bashfully, the novice explained that he was shortly going for an audition at RADA. ‘RADA?’ one of the unhandsome pair echoed, ‘– Oh, la-di-da!’ ‘La-di-definitely-da!’ the other chirped. Humiliated, Ronnie fled.

While Cinderella did not overwhelm Harwood, his memories of his first night in the West End remain fresh. ‘It was already dark,’ he recalls of meeting Lionel and Raymond before the show, ‘with the lights of the buses, the taxis and theatres glowing, flaring, sparkling, creating expectation for whatever excitement might lie ahead – like an orchestra tuning up for the overture.’ There were not in those days the now-familiar crowds of tourists and pleasure-seekers, and even amid the wreckage of the Blitz few Londoners walked the streets without a collar and tie. Least negligent in these sartorial matters was Harwood, whose mother had firmly instructed him that a tie was the ‘respect one paid to a great city.’

But there were signs, too, that the West End was modernizing. Only three years previously the first musical, Oklahoma!, had been produced by the doyen of theatreland, Hugh ‘Binkie’ Beaumont – a spectacle considered by one R. B. Marriott of The Stage to herald the onset of an ‘American invasion’. This deluge, however, was not to come for some years yet. For the time being it was principally the deaths of the two biggest names in the theatre which rocked the West End. The first of these was entirely expected: on 2 November 1950 died George Bernard Shaw at the age of ninety-four. He left behind him a school of followers determined to make the theatre a place of politics and irreverence towards ‘the system’ and ‘the Establishment’. The other playwright to die shortly before Harwood’s arrival was Ivor Novello. Although little more than a name today, this multi-talented writer, actor and musician was at the time of his unexpected death, aged fifty-eight, one of the most beloved figures in Britain. By contrast to the intellectual Shaw, his plays and melodramas appealed to the senses, transporting audiences to lost worlds crowded with poignant scenes. This was the school to which Harwood was instinctively drawn.3

Novello’s last play, Kings Rhapsody