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At the risk of turning this into the Dead British Actors forum, here's a review of a new biography of Alec Guinness, by the actor Simon Callow (the Guardian, 11/23):


Also, Turner Classic Movies is doing an Ealing Studios retrospective this month -- Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Lavender Hill Mob, The Ladykillers, and many others will be shown.

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Well, in the spirit of the all-inclusive nature of the Internet, why not have a Dead British Actors forum? They have to go SOMEWHERE :)

Thank you so much for finding this for us and posting it -- it's an excellent article, I think -- LONG, but well worth reading. I hope anyone who's interested in acting, or has ever pondered about the magic of the theater will read it. I'm unfamiliar with Simon Callow's work, either as an actor or a writer, but now I'd like to see and read more. The two descriptions of exceptional Gunness performance gave me chills. (I couldn't help but sympathize, too, with a biographer trying to trap an enigmatic subject :) They always win in the end. :) )

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A good example of that phenomenon is the recent appearance of Kenneth Branagh in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. I wondered if they knew what they were doing by hiring him for a part that is, well, total ham and total turkey at the same time!

I shouldn't have worried; he did a splendid job of being the kind of glad-hander that gives kids the creeps, and he was terrific as a second banana to a 13-year-old!

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Simon Callow wrote a marvellous book called Being an Actor, which is unfortunately out of print but can be found in libraries and used book stores. In it, he takes us through the various stages in an actor's life—The Agent, Getting the Job, First Readthrough, Rehearsals, etc., including the all-important Unemployment. Here is an excerpt from his chapter on The Audience:

At his curtain call, Max Wall says to the audience, "Thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen, you've been 50 percent."  And they are.  The actor's experience of an audience is very vivid—the undeniable and inexplicable fact that almost all audiences assume a corporate identity within minutes of the curtain going up (some obstinately refuse to integrate:  Alabaman audiences) means that you're dealing with a person, not a mass.  But it's not enough to respond to them as they walk into the theater with the state of mind in which you walk into the theater.  The question is, what have they come for?  And what are you offering them?  This is precisely the question on which most theories of the drama devolve.  For me, none of them, the Stanislavsky, the Brecht, or the showbiz, answers to the demands of the harsh reality of night by night playing.
It's a book that worth searching for, if you're interested in acting and the theater.
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Callow mentions in the review that Guinness gave him "precious" advice about film acting. Perhaps one day it will show up on the screen. :)

I am reading the O'Connor bio, and it reflects, in passing, the rise in the status of actors that occurred, for good and ill, in the century just passed. (It is unlikely that anyone respectable or serious-minded in the nineteenth century would have been greatly interested in reading a book called "Being an Actor." ) I agree with most of Callow's criticisms. The biography has some fascinating things in it, but O'Connor was right – Guinness seems to have eluded him and pretty much everyone else, save perhaps his long-suffering wife, in the end. I think he'd be pleased.

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While on the subject of Dead British Actors:

Harley Granville-Barker-- the name might be enough to cause some significant eye rolling. I have encountered references to his "Prefaces to Shakespeare" a lot recently. I have been re-reading the Roman plays and the histories, along with some critical works.

He was an actor who toured with Mrs. Patrick Campbell and made his first London appearance in 1892. He was a brilliant actor-manager in the day when there were still a lot of them. A favorite of George Bernard Shaw, he starred in the first performances of many plays by GBS at the Court Theater. If he accomplished half as much in these honor happy times he would at least have some initials after his name, if not "Sir" in front of it.

His stripped down staging of classics there, harkening back to the open stage of the Elizabethan playhouses. He also insisted on a much more "realistic" delivery of both verse and prose in Shakespeare--less ponderous and actorish, quicker and sharper. It was a necessary revolution--much like the extremely spare post-World War II productions at Beyreuth by Wieland Wagner.

As it happens, he really knows Shakespeare--knows him in a way that both constant reading and constant playing will bring. I have finished his preface to "Antony and Cleopatra", which is a brilliant approach to this play. The preface to "Coriolanus" is next on the list.

The next time you decide to pick up Shakespeare, take a look at Granville-Barker.

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I second that. You can't get a better look at Shakespeare from a theatrical perspective.

Guinness, oddly enough, was not a huge success in the big Shakespearean roles. He stole the notices in parts like Osric, Lear's Fool, and Sir Andrew Aguecheek, but flubbed Hamlet and Richard II -- two roles he should have been good in.

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I was especially struck by the first book, Blessings in Disguise, which consists mainly of delightful profiles of other people, and it's not until the last minute that Guinness unveils a crucial piece of personal information with an air of "Oh yes, almost forgot this." I couldn't help thinking that in the memoir of any American actor it would have been the centerpiece of the books.

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