Ferdinand Mount

Looking back in judgment

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John Osborne: A Patriot for Us

John Heilpern

Chatto, pp. 528, £

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The heart starts to sink on the very first page, p. xiii to be precise, because this is still the Preface: ‘When I began work on Osborne’s biography, hoping for the best, I asked his wife Helen, “What does no one know about your husband?” ’Already you can see the gleam in the biographer’s eye, the headline on the review front: Angry Playwright’s Other Life, Secret Shame of John Osborne. By p. xiv we have sunk lower: ‘What caused his depressions would send me in time on an obsessive search for the one explanation of Osborne’s torment and fury that might account for everything — “the Rosebud Theory”.’ So the Fleet Street sleuth is also a Hollywood shrink — Geoffrey Levy meets Orson Welles and the analyst comes too.

Helen Osborne was the Katharine Parr in The Five Wives of John Osborne —divorced, died, died, died, survived. The middle three — Mary Ure, Penelope Gilliatt and Jill Bennett — were also divorced, and all three more or less killed themselves by drink and drugs. Helen was the only one to take his name. She endured his tantrums and his glooms, coped with his drink and diabetes, matched him joke for joke and glass for glass. In this scene of carnage as full of corpses as the end of Hamlet, she alone, the chain-smoking, wisecracking Widow of Oz, as she styled herself, was left to tell the tale. Except that she didn’t and John Heilpern did. Which is a pity.

No human being in recorded history stands in less need of further revealing than John Osborne. To say he wore his heart on his sleeve is a genteel understatement. He flayed himself alive in public at regular intervals. Even before the first word is spoken in Look Back in Anger, the stage directions describe Jimmy Porter in precise terms which fit his creator as near as dammit:

He is a disconcerting mixture of sincerity and cheerful malice, of tenderness and freebooting cruelty; restless, importunate, full of pride, a combination which alienates the sensitive and insensitive alike. Blistering honesty, or apparent honesty, like his, makes few friends. To many he may seem sensitive to the point of vulgarity. To others, he is simply a loudmouth. To be as vehement as he is is to be almost non-committal.

Osborne himself was the understudy for Jimmy Porter in the first, never to be forgotten production at the Royal Court in 1956. And he went on rehearsing the part for the rest of his life, enchanting, torturing and eventually freezing out any man, woman or child within range. His obsession with loyalty (to be shown to him, not by him of course), the difficulty of knowing when he was being serious and when he wasn’t (he didn’t know himself half the time), his mourning for his sweet, hopeless father who died when he was ten — all these things are in the play which he wrote when he was 26.

His grand tirades too commuted easily between the life and the stage. Unfort- unately for his nearest and dearest he could only practise with live ammunition. Jimmy’s needling of Alison in Look Back in Anger as ‘the Lady Pusillanimous’ is a mild echo of his invective against his first wife Pamela Lane whom he was just splitting up from: ‘That bitch, that pusillanimous, sycophantic, snivelling, phlegmish yokel, that cow — fortunately I’ve ceased to care what happens to her’ — which didn’t stop him sleeping with her now and then after he had remarried, nor from supporting her financially for years afterwards.

Even in mid-rant there was a part of him which knew perfectly well how ghastly he was being and which could not help advertising his knowledge with a wicked glee. He left his lover Jocelyn Rickards for Penelope Gilliatt by simply stepping out of the taxi as it stopped at the Chesham Place lights and saying, ‘I’m sorry, my darling, I’m going to behave rather badly again.’

The most chilling example is the letter he wrote to his only child, his daughter Nolan (by Penelope Gilliatt) then aged 16, casting her out of his home and his life. He never saw her again, cut her out of his Who’s Who entry, and refused to acknowledge her children. Her only offence, as far as one can tell, was to watch Top of the Pops and to have a boyfriend. For this he denounced her as ‘almost uniquely cold-hearted’, ‘criminally commonplace’ etc. Yet in the middle of this evacuation of senseless bile he cannot resist telling her to look up the first Act of King Lear: ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is to have a thankless child.’ He knows perfectly well that he is Lear and she is Cordelia and he wants to tell everyone and take a copy for the record to be deposited with the rest of his papers in the Harry Ransom Center at Austin, Texas.

So Osborne does not exactly keep things to himself. The real Osborne is about as hard to track down as the real M25. In any case, he also published two volumes of autobiography, A Better Class of Person and Almost a Gentleman. These two caustic and evocative memoirs have recently been reissued by Faber in one volume, under the title Looking Back: Never Explain, Never Apologise, and given away at £14.99. When a biographer’s subject has already written his own life, an uneasy relationship arises. Naturally the biographer must ceaselessly raid the material, but he has to be wary too, because the horse’s mouth represents dangerous competition. So Heilpern, like other biographers in this bind, refers as little as possible to the Osborne self-lives and mentions only fleetingly the stir they made when they came out, provoked mostly by the author’s merciless portrait of his mother Nellie Beatrice as a feckless, ignorant harridan.

Nor is it as if people who knew him well were puzzled by him. Sir Simon Bland, the retired courtier who lived next door to Osborne in Kent, could see just as well as Harold Pinter that, in Pinter’s words, ‘the great thing about John Osborne was that he was a piss-taker. He just liked to take the piss out of everybody, including himself.’

But Heilpern insists on constructing a dark psychological narrative, according to which Osborne’s early struggles and deprivations created this tempestuous mixture of aggression and depression, of guilt and vainglory. This is only half-convincing. Alec Guinness, for example, had a similar early life: a drunken, raging, ill-educated mother whom he loathed but supported for the rest of her long life, an absent father, education at dim, fee-paying schools paid for by mysterious distant funds, painful early failures as an actor. Yet the adult persona he constructed could not have been more different: bland, exquisitely courteous, totally self-concealing. The only things Guinness had in common with Osborne were his dedication to his art and his generosity with the torrents of cash that came his way.

Readers should be warned too that it is uphill work trekking with Heilpern. He carries out his obsessive quest largely, and in my view fatally, through a series of interviews of the sort he used to do for the Observer. So when we come to Osborne’s early days on two trade periodicals, Gas World and The Miller, Heilpern makes us trudge all the way to Toronto to meet Osborne’s old editor, Arnold Running,

still a fine-looking man with his full head of hair and grey beard hinting at the bohemian. He looked alert and welcoming, peering at me with his glasses perched on the end of his nose. His wife Pamela, formerly one of the leading breeders of wire-haired fox terriers in Canada, came bustling into the sitting room with coffee and cakes.

After a page or two more of this sort of thing, what we learn is that John was a nice young man who had left-wing views and copied words out of dictionaries. Heilpern tells us too that Osborne’s early collaborator and landlord Anthony Creighton is ‘now 74, tanned from the sun, and dressed informally in a checked shirt, neat corduroys and sturdy walking shoes’. Do we really care how sturdy his walking shoes are or where he gets his tan from? All we wish to know, or all that Heilpern wants us to wish to know, is whether when he and Osborne shared a houseboat their passionate friendship led to sex. Yes, Creighton told the Evening Standard. Er no, he now tells Heilpern. My guess would be somewhere in between, but since we already know that Osborne has sex with anything that isn’t nailed down, I’m not greatly excited either way. Still, it’s more interesting than the wire-haired fox terriers.

But I do wish Heilpern would take a little more trouble. Did Osborne and his first wife rent a room from Creighton at 35 Caithness Road (p. 124), or 53 Caithness Road (p. 146), or even 14 Caithness Road (A Better Class of Person, p. 247)? He constantly expresses wonder that Osborne should spend so much time reading ‘fat dictionaries’ (dictionaries are always ‘fat’ or ‘solid’ in this book, just as Belgravia is ‘exclusive’ and respectability is always ‘bourgeois’, subjects are ‘thorny’, and any university you have ever heard of is ‘prestigious’). But a little recourse to the dictionary might have helped Heilpern to spell some of the longer words like ‘dilettante’ and ‘philoprogenitive’ (the ones that spellcheck doesn’t help you with). I suspect that one of Osborne’s ancestors was a billiard-marker, not a ‘billiard-maker’. The great Education Act was passed in 1944, not 1945. Edwin Landseer (died 1873) is not best described as ‘beloved Edwardian portrait artist of stags and pedigree dogs’. Heilpern repeatedly uses ‘disinterested’ when he means ‘uninterested’. Penelope Gilliatt, we are told, ‘sends her staff in search of out-of-season quail and spatchcock’, as though spatchcock were an esoteric breed of grouse instead of merely a method of cooking the fowl.

We are told too that Faith, Osborne’s sister who died in infancy, was christened at St Martin’s in the Fields by ‘the Reverend Dick Sheppard, the England star cricketer’. In fact, David Sheppard, the great batsman, later Bishop of Liverpool, was in the womb at the time, so not doing much batting or baptising yet. Dick Sheppard was famous too but as a preacher and founder of the Peace Pledge Union — a fact not entirely irrelevant, since Osborne grew up to support CND and join the Committee of 100.

Which brings us to Heilpern’s supposed great Rosebud discovery: that Faith died of TB not when Osborne was two, as he always believed, but when he was only three months old. According to Heilpern, his recurrent despair can be explained because he was born into a household that was shadowed by intolerable grief. A moment’s thought is enough to see that the discovery adds very little to what we already know. If anything, John would have been more, not less conscious of the agony of the bereavement if it had happened when he was two. But whatever the date, the pain of Faith’s death would never have left his parents, as Osborne makes clear at the end of the chapter about their marriage in his autobiography.

Heilpern’s little errors might be less annoying if the surrounding prose were not so indigestible — like finding withered raisins in a stodgy pudding. He seldom reaches for a metaphor without mixing it. Osborne’s treatment of Mary Ure ‘unhinged her core of fragility’. Pleasure in silly things is ‘the safety-valve of the buttoned-up British’. Adjectives get disastrously transferred from subject to predicate. So Mary Ure ‘took the slavish advice of a New York gynaecologist’ and ‘took solace in her infatuated love affair with Robert Shaw’. Some sentences are so stomach-curdling that you have to stop and take a deep breath before carrying on. Of Osborne’s local town in Kent, Heilpern says, ‘Ye Olde High Street in Edenbridge still looks as if Miss Marple might suddenly appear bustling along it solving crimes.’ As a discriminating stylist, or ‘mature wordsmith’ as Heilpern puts it, what Osborne would have done with this book does not bear thinking of.

At least Heilpern does give proper room to the epoch-making first night of Look Back in Anger, ‘the only play in the history of theatre to have a birthday’ (the French might argue about the first night of Victor Hugo’s Hernani, but that just shows the league we are in). When Binkie Beaumont walked out in disgust at the interval, it was a defining moment. But it did not seem like that at the time. Every established theatre manager and agent had rejected the play. The first-night critics mostly found it a putrid and boring production, with the glowing exception of Derek Granger in the FT who saw that it was ‘arresting, painful and sometimes astonishing’. Only when Kenneth Tynan and Harold Hobson weighed in the following Sunday did the play’s reputation really take off. Even then, there had to be an 18-minute extract on BBC TV before young people began flocking to the Royal Court.

The term ‘Angry Young Man’ is attributed here to George Fearon, the English Stage Company’s press officer, who told Osborne, ‘I suppose you’re really an Angry Young Man.’ But Heilpern does not give the whole story. The phrase was already in the air after a recent novel of that title by Leslie Paul. And what Fearon went on to say later was, ‘We decided then and there that henceforth he was to be known as that.’ In other words, it was a marketing ploy, and though Osborne later complained that it had become a millstone round his neck, that did not stop him buying the AYM1 number plate for his first sports car.

Posterity likes to unpeel labels. We are now told how diverse all the supposed Angry Young Men were in reality. Amis for one, Heilpern tells us, ‘refused to be buttonholed in their company’ (I think he means pigeonholed. Oh God what a book this is). Yet looking back, I can’t help thinking that the unleashing of some pent-up rage does seem to be common to that generation. This is how they startle, Osborne and Amis and Larkin and Pinter too: the sudden explosion of anger in polite society, the obscenity in the iambic, the lava spouting out of the dining-room table. The rage is always lurking, rage against the deceitfully bland, the manipulative evasion, against all feeling-suppressants, the rage occasionally overblowing into sheer flatulence, like that great expulsion of wind, ‘Damn You England’, composed beside Tony Richardson’s pool in the South of France.

This does not mean that they congregated and drew up manifestoes. Each had his own private kingdom of anger. They no more formed lasting alliances than do extreme nationalist movements in different countries. In that Olympus of Grumpy Old Men, the 1400 Club (reserved for those members of the Garrick Club who cannot abide sitting down to lunch before 2 p.m.), Amis and Osborne refused to address each other directly, and would speak only through third parties.

There is something else they have in common too and Osborne has in abundance, which is an ear for ordinary speech, for its loops and repetitions and jumps and hesitations, its sudden flaring up and dying down again into banal set phrases. In his best four or five plays, The Entertainer and Inadmissible Evidence especially, there is an almost magical flow to the monologues as well as to the conversations which manages to be both wholly original and utterly down-to-earth. That is the real break with the theatre of Coward and Fry and even Rattigan. And when Osborne revivals come across as dated, as people now and then complain, it is usually because the actors have forgotten how people talk.

The sad thing is that the gift doesn’t last. ‘We theatre scribblers average about a dozen years or so,’ Osborne said gloomily. ‘Nobody ever wrote a great play after the age of 40.’ The ear dulls, the successful playwright floats away from his original material on a tide of champagne and ties up at the port of Thespia, where they speak a different language.

The conventional line is also to chart a falling away from Jimmy Porter in his radical rage inveighing against the church bells to Squire Osborne on his knees in the parish church with a ‘Save the Book of Common Prayer’ sticker in his back window. Can this be the same person who vehemently refused to be confirmed and was sacked from school for knocking down Mr Heffer the headmaster? Well, yes, it can. Perceptive critics like Harold Hobson (who looks better and better in hindsight) spotted from the start the elegiac note in all Osborne’s plays. Even in his early thirties he was singing old music-hall songs with John Betjeman, and, though it is hard to imagine in that sea of booze, when he was married to Penelope Gilliatt prayers were sometimes said after dinner in Chester Square.

In fact the only time I clapped eyes on Osborne was in church, at a confirmation service in a dimly lit side chapel in Westminster Abbey, or rather I think it was a combined baptism and confirmation for those who had somehow missed out on the first leg, including John Osborne’s much loved godson, Ben Walden, later a good actor and one of the few people he never quarrelled with. Just before it started, in stalked this tall, reddish-grizzled man in a huge green overcoat with complicated flaps. He looked like an old-style actor-manager who had been transported from some other time, the time of Sir Henry Irving perhaps or even the Crummleses, and had been left stranded by the time machine. He was absurdly stagey, exuded melancholy from every flap, no flincher from the glass or from anything else. He looked magnificent, terrible but magnificent.