Jonathan Cecil

One rung below greatness

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Secret Dreams: A Biography of Michael Redgrave

Alan Strachan

Weidenfeld, pp. 484, £

Actors’ biographies, once a comparative rarity and usually ghosted and bowdlerised, spring forth every season. They are often pruriently, dubiously, sensational: we are told that Olivier had an affair with Danny Kaye, that Peggy Ashcroft was a near-nymphomaniac and Alec Guinness a covert gay cruiser, all with scant evidence and with little relation to their art. What a relief to read a sober biography of a distinguished player, Michael Redgrave, largely concentrating on his acting although not shirking the fact that he was a promiscuous, often guilt-ridden bisexual with a one-time flirtation with Stalinism.

Alan Strachan’s book — all the better for being written by an experienced man of the theatre — has two main agendas; first to give Redgrave his proper due as a major actor — his name not often nowadays linked with Richardson’s, Olivier’s or Gielgud’s — and secondly to dispute the obituarists’ notion that Redgrave, the Cambridge graduate and sometime schoolmaster, was a coldly intellectual rather than emotional actor.

Curiously enough, apart from Gielgud with his Terry connections, Michael Redgrave came from the most thoroughly theatrical family of all the knights. Normally one dreads the opening chapter of such a book, painstakingly tracing the protagonist’s roots, but the description of Roy Redgrave, the womanising, barnstorming, bigamous actor-father whom Michael never knew, and his mother Daisy, the captivating actress, is as riveting as anything else in the book, with its admirable evocation of the world of touring and cheap digs.

Daisy, who had a sad, dipsomaniac decline — some said partly owing to jealousy of her son’s success — remarried respectably and Michael was sent to Clifton College, later going on to a golden period at Cambridge.

After a short time as a schoolmaster, Michael’s launch into the theatre appears charmed from the start. A successful period at the Liverpool Playhouse — then, with Birmingham’s, the top repertory theatre in this country — led to his being spotted by ‘Binkie’ Beaumont, soon to be our top impresario.

He met his future wife, Rachel Kempson, at Liverpool and theirs was a happy if flawed marriage with three hugely successful children and later successful grandchildren.

At school and Cambridge he had had affairs with men, although losing his virginity to a woman. When Rachel was pregnant with their first child Vanessa, Michael, the glamorous Old Vic juvenile, was having a passionate affair with Edith Evans: after this he had an affair with No