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01:56 pm: Oxford's LOTD: Alec Guinness

Guinness, Sir Alec (1914-2000), actor, was born at 155 Lauderdale Mansions, Paddington, London, on 2 April 1914, the son of Agnes Cuffe
(or de Cuffe, b. 1886/7)
, daughter of Edward Charles Cuffe RN. When Alec was five his mother married David Daniel Stiven (b. 1880/81), a lieutenant in the Royal Army Service Corps. He was known as Alec Stiven until he was fourteen, when he was told casually that his real name was Guinness.

There has been much speculation about the identity of Guinness's father, with strenuous efforts made to link him with the brewing Guinness family, but the name of his father has never been established. There is no doubt that Guinness's somewhat shadowy background contributed a certain opacity to many of the roles he subsequently played during his career as an actor, on the stage, in films, and on television.

Guinness was educated at Pembroke Lodge, Southbourne, and at Roborough in Eastbourne. His headmaster pulled a few strings and Guinness was taken on as a copywriter at Ark's Publicity, an advertising agency in Lincoln's Inn Fields, London. 'I was paid a pound a week, later rising to thirty shillings, for generally making a hash of my job.' And, once a week, Guinness went to the theatre, usually to the Old Vic, where one could get in for sixpence. He had had his first real taste of the theatre in Bournemouth in 1930, seeing Sybil Thorndike and her husband, Lewis Casson, in a melodrama called The Squall and in Ibsen's Ghosts.

With surprising bravado, Guinness telephoned John Gielgud, whom he had never met, and asked his advice. Gielgud, possibly thinking that his young caller was indeed a member of the brewing family, suggested he try Martita Hunt, as she needed the money. After an agonizing interview Hunt agreed to coach him at a pound an hour. She suggested that he should apply to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art for a scholarship, but as one was not available that year he enrolled at the Fay Compton School. Guinness's first stage appearance was in Libel! at the Playhouse Theatre. However, it was Gielgud who gave him his first real part, as Osric in Hamlet at the New Theatre in 1934 (something of an improvement after playing a Chinese coolie, a French pirate, and an English sailor in Noel Langley's Queer Cargo).

In the following year Guinness appeared in Andre Obey's Noah, under the direction of Michel Saint-Denis, and in Gielgud's production of Romeo and Juliet; in 1936 he appeared in Chekhov's The Seagull, directed by Komisarjevsky. The last three years before the outbreak of the Second World War saw Guinness establish himself in a string of classic plays, mainly at the Old Vic and the Queen's Theatre. His directors included Saint-Denis, Gielgud, and, most significantly, Tyrone Guthrie. Parts in Love's Labour's Lost, As You Like It, The Witch of Edmonton, Hamlet (Osric again), Twelfth Night, Henry V, Richard II, The School for Scandal (Snake), The Three Sisters, The Merchant of Venice, The Doctor's Dilemma (Louis Dubedat), Trelawny of the 'Wells', and The Rivals (Bob Acres) followed in rapid succession. The culminating point was his Hamlet in Guthrie's famous-some would say notorious-modern-dress production at the Old Vic in 1938. The critic James Agate wrote that Guinness's portrayal 'had a value of its own' (The Guardian).

On 20 June 1938, Guinness married the artist Merula Sylvia Salaman (1914-2000), whom he had met when they were both playing in Noah (he was a wolf, she a tiger). She was born on 16 October 1914, the daughter of Major Michael Hewitt Salaman, of the Royal North Devon hussars yeomanry, and his wife, Chattie, daughter of Colonel Edward Baldwin Wake of the 21st hussars, and a descendant of Hereward the Wake. Both of her parents had been at the Slade School of Art (with Augustus John) and her brother Michael exhibited alongside Picasso, Braque, Bonnard, and Dufy. Merula Guinness's own career as an artist began to flourish after the Second World War. In the meantime she toured with her husband. In 1940 their son Matthew was born.

In 1939 Guinness appeared in W. H. Auden's and Christopher Isherwood's The Ascent of F6 at the Old Vic and played Herbert Pocket in his own adaptation of Dickens's Great Expectations, performed at the Rudolf Steiner Hall (his other adaptation was of Dostoievsky's The Brothers Karamazov). Guinness joined the Royal Navy as a rating in 1941, and was commissioned in the following year. He later commanded a landing craft taking supplies to Yugoslav partisans. During the war the Admiralty temporarily released Guinness in 1942 so that he could appear on Broadway in Terence Rattigan's Flare Path. His account of his naval career, in Blessings in Disguise, was entitled 'Damage to the Allied Cause', but action mainly in the Mediterranean was not without its moments of drama and even bravery.

Between 1946 and 1948 Guinness was at the New Theatre, playing the Fool in Laurence Olivier's production of King Lear, Eric Birling in J. B. Priestley's An Inspector Calls, De Guiche in Tyrone Guthrie's production of Cyrano de Bergerac, Abel Drugger in Ben Jonson's The Alchemist, Richard II under Ralph Richardson's direction, the Dauphin in Shaw's Saint Joan, and roles in The Government Inspector and Coriolanus; he himself directed Twelfth Night.

First film roles

The year 1946 also saw a major departure in Guinness's career. David Lean cast him as Herbert Pocket in his hugely successful film of Great Expectations with John Mills as Pip. This was followed by one of Guinness's greatest roles, that of Fagin in Oliver Twist (1948), also directed by Lean. In later years Guinness's portrayal was much criticized as an example of antisemitic stage Jewishness. Many years afterwards he received similar criticism for his role as Professor Godbole in A Passage to India (1984), a film which Guinness hated so much that he had to leave the premiere in America to be physically sick. Guinness's next role-or rather roles-on celluloid brooked no criticism. In Robert Hamer's Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949) Guinness was able to exhibit his talent for characterization by playing all eight members of the d'Ascoyne family who, one by one, are killed off by the murderous Dennis Price. The phrase tour de force is almost a cliche, but here it was entirely deserved. Kind Hearts and Coronets is one of the classics of film comedy.

The 1950s were a golden age for Ealing comedies and for Alec Guinness [see also Ealing Studios]. Roles in The Lavender Hill Mob (1951), the rather surreal Man in the White Suit (1951), and The Ladykillers (1955) followed over the next five years. Despite these successes, Guinness remained an enigma. According to one obituarist, 'A reluctance to expose himself, an almost neurotic discretion, was famously the mark of both his professional and his personal style' (The Guardian). Another considered that 'even in his more extrovert roles, he seemed to preserve the marrow of his anonymity' (The Independent). Guinness did not neglect the stage. He appeared in T. S. Eliot's The Cocktail Party, in the title role of another Hamlet, in more Shakespeare at Tyrone Guthrie's festival at Stratford, Ontario, in Bridget Boland's powerful The Cardinal and Feydeau's Hotel Paradiso, and perhaps most memorably in Terence Rattigan's Ross, with Guinness as another enigma, T. E. Lawrence. But the cinema took up more and more of Guinness's time. There were a few comedies, Father Brown (1954), The Swan (1956), Barnacle Bill (1957); a war film, Malta Story (1953); a melodrama, The Scapegoat, from Daphne du Maurier's novel. But there were also three outstanding performances: as Gulley Jimson, the anarchic painter in The Horse's Mouth (1958), adapted by Guinness himself from Joyce Cary's novel; as Wormald, the innocent salesman dragged into a world of spies and counter-spies in Graham Greene's Our Man in Havana (1960); and as Colonel Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957). Guinness's portrayal of a brave, stiff-necked, perverse army officer in Japanese hands during the Second World War was another tour de force, and it won him the Oscar for best actor.

Then, almost as if to show a completely different side to the military psyche, Guinness took the part, in Tunes of Glory (1960), of a heavy-drinking, loud-mouthed, risen-from-the-ranks officer, in perfect juxtaposition to John Mills's well-meaning, humourless, ultimately tragic incomer. Other films of this period were less satisfactory: the overblown Doctor Zhivago (1965), a (brilliant) cameo role in Lawrence of Arabia (1962), a dignified Charles I in Cromwell (1970), the rather feeble Comedians (1967) from another Graham Greene novel, Marcus Aurelius in The Fall of the Roman Empire (1964), Marley's Ghost in Scrooge (1970). Of considerably more substance were his appearances on the stage in Arthur Miller's Incident at Vichy in 1966, John Mortimer's A Voyage Round my Father in 1969, and Simon Gray's Wise Child (1967), in which Guinness appeared, greatly to his fans' amazement, as the transvestite criminal Mrs Artminster. There was a disastrous Macbeth (with Simone Signoret as a very Gallic Lady Macbeth), at the Royal Court Theatre, London, in 1966.

Popular success

1973 brought the first of Guinness's collaborations with Alan Bennett. Habeas Corpus revealed Guinness in another unexpected guise, playing a randy dentist and doing a very neat dance in grey top hat and morning coat. But it was the film Star Wars (1977) that made Guinness an international star, and which also, through a shrewd contractual clause, bolstered his finances until his death. At first reluctant to take on the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was won over by the director-producer George Lucas. Guinness was now seen by millions who had never heard of Kind Hearts and Coronets or The Bridge on the River Kwai, and he forbade any mention of the film by his friends. Once, famously, he was asked for his autograph by an eager mother and her small son. Eventually Guinness agreed to sign-but on one condition: the boy should never see Star Wars again. Inevitably there were floods of tears. Guinness nevertheless appeared in the sequels The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and The Return of the Jedi (1983).

On the stage Guinness appeared in another Alan Bennett play, The Old Country (1977), playing a retired spy; and in Julian Mitchell's adaptation of Ivy Compton-Burnett's A Family and a Fortune. In 1979 he found yet another vast audience, this time through his immensely subtle performance as the inscrutable George Smiley in the television adaptation of John le Carre's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which was followed in 1981 by Smiley's People.

With Alan Strachan, Guinness devised a not entirely successful one-man show as Dean Swift, Yahoo (1976); there was a final Shakespeare role, Shylock at Chichester; a superb piece of acting as old Mr Dorrit; and a sinister cameo role as the appalling Mr Todd in Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust. His last appearance was for television, in Jack Rosenthal's Eskimo Day in 1996.

Alec Guinness displayed his other talent, as a writer. In a highly selective memoir, Blessings in Disguise (1985), he showed that he was a master of the anecdote, and equally a master of disguise. In a series of episodes and pen portraits, who was out was often more remarkable than who was in: Gielgud and Richardson were included, of course, but not Laurence Olivier. One chapter, about a lunch with the travel writer Freya Stark in Asolo, had to be omitted because of his contention that she had tried to poison him with snake venom (it was restored in a later edition once the presumed poisoner was safely dead). The book was a bestseller, as were My Name Escapes Me (1997) and A Positively Final Appearance (1999), both of which were culled from the diaries he kept. A final work, A Commonplace Book, was published in 2001.

Religious faith was a vital element in Guinness's life. He was received into the Roman Catholic church in 1956, and his wife, Merula, followed him soon afterwards. She had long abandoned her theatrical career, but had developed her remarkable talent as an artist. She specialized in naive paintings, often creating wonderfully simple, colourful images in the form of miniature tapestries. Animals, favoured saints such as St Jerome, and nature were her most frequent subjects. She showed mainly at the Crane Kalman Gallery in Knightsbridge, but in 1997 her pictures were included in a Salaman family exhibition at Gallery 27 in Cork Street. She hated London, rarely accompanying her husband on his frequent forays in search of entertainment, books, friends, and a bit of luxury at the Connaught Hotel. She preferred to remain at their house near Petersfield in Hampshire, tending her goats and dogs.

Death and assessment

Guinness died from cancer in The King Edward VII Hospital, Easebourne, near Midhurst, Sussex, on 5 August 2000, and was buried in Petersfield, Hampshire; his wife, Merula, died only a few months later on 18 October. He had been knighted in 1959, appointed CBE in 1955, and made a Companion of Honour in 1994. As an actor on the stage he was the equal of Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave, and Paul Scofield. But it was as an actor in films and on television that Guinness soared. His range was extraordinary, and his ability to absorb himself in his roles, so that they became him rather than the reverse, was unsurpassed. In Blessings in Disguise, he wrote:

It would be impossible to define in what way, exactly, I have been influenced by John Gielgud, for instance, or Guthrie, Komisarjevsky, Basil Dean, Michel Saint-Denis or a host of others. They have all left an indelible mark and I count myself lucky in having crossed their paths. Perhaps Edith Evans, Leon Quartermain, Ernest Milton and Ralph Richardson were the performers to whose lightest word, professionally, I paid most attention.
And in another passage he revealed an innate modesty and self-awareness:

He is well aware that he is not in the same class as Olivier, Richardson, Gielgud or the other Greats. His pleasure is in putting little bits of things together, as if playing with a jig-saw puzzle.
It was, though, a more complex jigsaw puzzle than met the eye. Like all great actors, Guinness was a mixture-of the vulnerable and the self-assertive, of the public and the intensely private. He was a stickler for punctuality and for good service in restaurants, of which he was a connoisseur. He was a wonderful host, but a nervous guest. He combined touches of flamboyance with a fervent desire for anonymity. He hated cant, change (which in his opinion was almost always for the worse), and assaults on the English language, particularly on the BBC. He had extraordinary courtesy but could be very sharp with people who offended him. The layers and subtleties of his complex personality contributed immensely to his unique qualities as an actor. Indeed, his skill as an actor was such that it becomes difficult to know just who was the 'real' Alec Guinness.

Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson














Sources A. Guinness, Blessings in disguise (1985) + J. R. Taylor, Alec Guinness: a celebration (1994) + Alec: a birthday present for Alec Guinness (1994) + A. Guinness, My name escapes me: the diary of a retiring actor (1997) + A. Guinness, A positively final appearance: a journal, 1996-98 (1999) + A. Guinness, A commonplace book (2001) + WW + b. cert. + m. cert. + d. cert. + m. cert. [Agnes Cuffe, mother] + The Guardian (8 Aug 2000) + The Independent (8 Aug 2000) + The Times (8 Aug 2000) + Daily Telegraph (8 Aug 2000) + private information (2004) [family]
Archives priv. coll. | BL, corresp. with Sir Sydney Cockerell, Add. MS 52717 + Georgetown University, Lauinger Library, letters to Elizabeth Jennings FILM BFI NFTVA, 'Parkinson: the interviews', BBC 1, 10 Oct 1997 + BFI NFTVA, Legends, ITV, 14 Aug 2001 SOUND BL NSA, performance recordings
Likenesses A. Buckley, photograph, 1948, NPG [see illus.] · A. Newman, bromide print, 1978, NPG · E. Frink, bronze bust, 1984, NPG · D. Hill, oils, NPG · photographs, Hult. Arch.

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