Guinness was born in London in 1914 to Agnes Cuff. Though the identity of his father was never confirmed, a Scottish banker, Andrew Geddes, paid for his private education. Guinness went to work in advertising but then switched to the theatre, making his stage debut in 1934 as an extra at the King’s Theatre. In 1937, he joined John Gielgud’s acting company and appeared in many theatre classics. A year later he married Merula Salaman, and they had one son. During the war, he served in the Royal Navy, first as a seaman then as an officer with various commands in the Mediterranean area.
Although Guinness returned to the stage after the war, he also became increasingly involved with films, starring in many of the Ealing comedies, such as Kind Hearts and Coronets, The Ladykillers and The Man in the White Suit. In 1954, he converted to Roman Catholicism. Guinness remained a star in the late 1950s and 1960s thanks to films such as Lawrence of Arabia and The Bridge on the River Kwai (for which the British Academy awarded him a best actor award). He was knighted in 1959.
In the 1970s, Guinness seemed to have more success in television, particularly in the role of George Smiley in several serialisations of John le Carré novels. And then, in the late 1970s and 1980s, he won over a new generation of fans by appearing in the Star Wars movies. He died in 2000. For more biographical information see Wikipedia, the British Film Institute, or any number of obituary notices (The Guardian, The Telegraph, The New York Times, BBC).
In the last decade of his life, Guinness revealed himself to be an entertaining diarist, first, in 1996, with My Name Escapes Me: The Diary of a Retiring Actor, with a preface by John le Carré; and then, in 1999, with A Positively Final Appearance: A Journal 1996-1998. Both books were first published by Hamish Hamilton.
Now, it has been announced, Guinness left behind a lot more than two published diaries. The British Library made this announcement on 7 February: ‘The British Library has acquired the personal archive of Oscar-winning actor Sir Alec Guinness. The archive, which charts Guinness’s career from the late 1930s to his death in 2000, includes more than 900 of his letters to family and friends and over 100 volumes of diaries, and was purchased with generous support from The Friends of the British Library. [. . .] Cataloguing is due to take place over the next year and the Library anticipates that the archive will be open for research in 2014.’
The press release goes on to say: ‘These papers, which will be publicly available for the first time, offer an intimate account of Alec Guinness’s life, detailing his wartime responsibilities and his conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1956, as well as his successful career on stage and screen. Highlights include [. . .] a diary entry following the death of Laurence Olivier in which Guinness reflects on Olivier’s acting technique and contribution to the stage, and Guinness’s account of his premonition of death the day before his boat went down in a freak storm during World War II.’ The archive, reportedly, cost the British Library some £320,000.
Of various stories (The Independent, The Times, BBC) in the media about the British Library’s purchase - largely focusing on Guinness’s opinion of other knights of the stage - The Guardian reveals most about the diaries.
They often have, The Guardian says, ‘a slightly Pooterish tone, with careful notes about the weather, his blood pressure and his finances. In 1983 he buys sweaters as presents for his son and grandson, “Italian and handsome but fiendish prices, £170 and £125”. Both diaries and letters reveal him as deeply superstitious. Also in 1983, soon after learning of the death of [Ralph] Richardson, he was putting on “a very heavy grey overcoat” and felt somebody invisible help him on with it. “I felt a shiver of fright, made the sign of the cross and then laughed . . . I laughed I believe because I thought it was the sort of thing Ralph might have done.” ’
The BBC gives this extract, dating from 12 July 1989, the day after death of Sir Laurence Olivier: ‘His “I defy you, stars” in Romeo was memorable. And so was his Poor naked wretches etc in Lear. But his famous howl in Oedipus I thought just tiresome. [. . .] He knew every trick of the trade and used every one, including, when he made his first entrance the lights coming up a few points and going down again when he left. [. . .] He was always very conscious of the audience - and his own powers over them. I’m not sure he was an artist but he was total actor - a giant among actors.’
Here, meanwhile, are two published extracts, including the first that appears in My Name Escapes Me.
1 January 1995
‘Through a chink in the bedroom curtains my unenthusiastic eye caught an early-morning glimpse of the New Year: it looked battleship grey. As I reluctantly swung out of bed I noticed my feet - never something on which I like to dwell. They appeared to be crumbling, sandstone monuments, the soles criss-crossed with ancient, indecipherable runes, which probably hold the secrets of eighty years of living and partly living - of happiness and fears, of distresses, of rather embarrassing successes and expected failures. I drew open the curtains and found the sky was in fact cloudless blue and the tops of the trees promised sunlight. It was all very different exactly fifty-one years ago when I was wrecked in a hurricane in the Adriatic, chucked around by thirty-foot waves and a wind of 120 m.p.h. I never liked New Year’s Day anyway; it has too often felt like a day of foreboding.
No resolutions have been made. Experience has taught me they barely survive a week. But I have made a few negative wishes for other people. I never wish to see again any reproduction of Andy Warhol’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe. Also I am anxious about that elderly lady lying on her face at the bottom of her stairs, clutching the accident alarm which is meant to alert her neighbours. She has been prostrate there for about two years and still no one has come to her aid. And I long for twelve months when no politician will used the word ‘clear’ to describe what is manifestly muddy or incomprehensible. Would all BBC (and other) announcers please read and inwardly digest Robert Burchfield’s The Spoken Word? It is slim, pocketable, authoritative and, after all, a BBC publication by a great lexicographer.
A sudden little blizzard made us too apprehensive to drive the couple of miles to Mass in the evening, so I threw a log on the fire and mixed a lethal cocktail called, I believe, the Claridge. (Half and half gin and French vermouth, with a good dash of Cointreau and apricot brandy.) That kept our eyes, slightly unfocused, on the TV production of Cold Comfort Farm.’
6 March 1996
‘Memories of Brighton crowded in on me as we drove home, from visits as a schoolboy to appearances at the Theatre Royal in later life; from doing the officer training course (for RNVR) at HMS King Alfred at the far edge of Hove (it now looks like some sort of leisure complex) to weekends during the fifties at the Royal Crescent Hotel at the eastern end of Brighton front. [. . .] What I liked most about Brighton as a boy was the little electric railway which ran from near the Palace Pier to Black Rock and had a section of its line, all too short for my money, running out over the sea. When the sea was a bit rough this was a thrill; when it was really rough the cissy little train didn’t function. I must have spent many happy, if lonely, hours to’ing and fro’ing. Not absolutely lonely. I have always found the sea, in whatever mood it was in, good and sufficient company.’