Reviewed by John Garth
The brief for this book is simple: Peter Lewis sets out to recall his memorable encounters during a high-flying Fleet Street career. But the results are rich indeed.
Lewis’s various roles in journalism – reporter, sub-editor, editor, theatre critic – brought him into contact with a cavalcade of era-defining personalities. Yet this is not a meal of reheated journalistic scraps; it is a fresh look back. The subtitle promises ‘Off the Record Encounters with Figures of Fame, Folly and Fun 1950–2000’, and Lewis takes advantage of the passage of time to open the door wider than he could in his original newspaper pieces.
He can be more frank about the foibles of the famous, such as a florid and energetic Frankie Howerd (‘like being at close quarters with a highly strung horse’) making a clumsy sexual pass at him. He can reveal his own role as interviewer, perched on a sandwich bar stool or lugging his state-of-the-art reel-to-reel recorder into John Osborne’s home. And the intervening years permit a pin-sharp sense of zeitgeist.
His urbane intelligence is signalled immediately by the speed with which he brushes Marilyn Monroe aside and seats us with Arthur Miller discussing McCarthyite America – how, at the premiere of The Crucible, all the theatregoers who had chatted with the playwright on the way in cold-shouldered him on the way out.
There is a little backtracking to Oxford days, when Lewis read PPE at Wadham (1948) and future Royal Court director Tony Richardson cost the college’s JCR £800 in the theatrical folly of staging John Ford’s Perkin Warbeck solely because (perhaps with good reason) it had not been performed for 320 years.
The atmosphere of the world of professional theatre, convivial and barbed by turns, plays against a backdrop of the Hungarian uprising, the Suez crisis, the collective guilt over the hanging of Ruth Ellis, the Aldermaston marches. The Sixties bring sea changes: North Sea Oil, assaults on deep-seated values on stage and television, and an injection of mysticism via the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Lewis was at the Edinburgh Festival debut of Beyond the Fringe (‘a new species of revue was being unveiled before our eyes’) and wrote scripts for That Was the Week That Was.
Affection and acerbity are dealt out even-handedly: Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett have all Lewis’s sympathy, for example, but David Frost is accused of purloining work of the TW3 scriptwriters for cabaret performances, having already ‘firmly set his course for lucre, lots of it’.
The author is as interested in what makes actors tick as in what they can do on stage. He tries to bottle essence of Judi Dench, Ralph Richardson, Alec Guinness, and many others. He sees blazing egos decline into terminal boredom (Richard Harris), and others just blazing on to the end. Of Laurence Olivier, he writes that ‘no one could do enough to satisfy that ego which demanded to be basted and basted yet more.’
We are also ushered into the presence of figures well outside the world of entertainment: Albert Speer, Ayatollah Khomeini, Bertrand Russell, and many others. Fascinating sidelights include less familiar figures such as Danilo Dolci, a lone campaigner against the Sicilian Mafia, and Viktor Louis, a ‘journalist’ whom Lewis outed as a KGB agent. The book could be taken in fragments, but clever sequencing (stepping almost seamlessly from Speer’s memories of Hitler to Alec Guinness’s portrayal of him in Hitler: The Last Ten Days, for example) means it is never staccato.
Lewis writes without cynicism about transcendental meditation in the Sixties (he experienced it ‘like a jaw opening in the skull cavity’) and spoon-bending, mind-reading and poltergeists in the Seventies. By this point he has proven himself so successfully as a witness that it’s easy to suspend disbelief and give him a decent hearing.
Memories of subbing at the Daily Express (the Lubianka, as it was known) sound quite familiar to me from my own years at the Evening Standard in the Nineties, from the enthusiastic four-letter philistinism right down to the blacklist of people whose names must not be mentioned in the paper except in derogatory fashion. Yet the practicalities of journalism in the print era are vividly captured: to file his First Night theatre reviews, Lewis would have to jot down his thoughts in the dark, sometimes leave before the end of the show, somehow locate an empty phone box, and there ad-lib much of his piece. In this, care had to be taken to spell out all the names, to avoid classic transcription errors such as Henry Gibson, the famous playwright.
Lewis combines a keen eye for character and detail with years of experience as a writer. There are passages in this book of vignettes as redolent of the latter half of the 20th century as, say, Brideshead Revisited is of the 1920s.