Friday, December 22, 2017

Happy days with Peggy

‘All day with Peggy Ashcroft reading through Happy Days. Magnificent play. It excited me to hear her read it.’ Today marks the 110th anniversary of Peggy Ashcroft, a grand dame of 20th century British theatre. Although not a diarist herself, cameos of her can be found in the diaries of others, not least the theatre director Peter Hall (writer of the above diary entry) and the film director Lindsay Anderson. I, also, have a brief diary entry about Ashcroft - on seeing her at a world premiere of a film with a screenplay by Harold Pinter.

Ashcroft was born on 22 December 1907 in Croydon, Surrey, the youngest child of a land agent who would die during WWI. She was educated locally, until, aged 16, she determined to become an actress and so she enrolled at the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. She made her professional stage debut, while still a student, at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre playing opposite Ralph Richardson; and she graduated with a Diploma in Dramatic Art in 1927. She went to work for small touring companies, but in 1929 made a successful debut in the West End playing Naemi in Jew Süss. The same year, she married another actor (later a publisher) Rupert Hart-Davis, though the marriage was short-lived ending in divorce in 1933 (on the grounds of Ashcroft’s adultery with Theodore Komisarjevsky who, in 1934, she married).

In 1930, Ashcroft’s Desdemona in a production of Othello at the Savoy Theatre, starring Paul Robeson, brought her increased attention. Beginning in 1932, her appearances with the Old Vic Company (run by Lilian Baylis) established her reputation, in Shaw’s Cleopatra, for example, as Juliet in John Gielgud’s production of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, and as Cecily in Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest.  During the 1930s, she also starred in Alfred Hitchcock’s The Thirty-nine Steps, and she made her American stage debut as Lise in Maxwell Anderson’s High Tor (1937). After her marriage to Komisarjevsky failed, and during the war, she married a lawyer, Jeremy Hutchinson, with whom she had two children, returning, after a break, to the West End and Broadway in 1947.

Ashcroft continued to star in West End and touring productions throughout the 1950s, but in 1958 agreed to join Peter Hall’s newly-formed Royal Shakespeare Company for which she played many starring roles through the 1960s and 1970s. From 1973, she also appeared at the National Theatre where Hall had been appointed director. Although she retired from the stage in the early 1980s, Ashcroft appeared in several successful films and TV productions, notably The Jewel in the Crown and A Passage to India. She was garlanded with honours, at home and abroad, being made a CBE in 1951 and a DBE in 1956, as well as film and theatre industry awards including a special Laurence Olivier Award (1991), the year she died. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, Screen Online, Encyclopaedia Britannica, The Washington Post, The New York Times.

There is no obvious evidence that Ashcroft kept a diary, but she regularly crops up in other people’s diaries, notably those published by the theatre director Peter Hall and the film director
Lindsay Anderson. See below for extracts from both Hall’s and Anderson’s diaries, as well as one short extract from my own diary.

From Lindsay Anderson’s diaries:

22 January 1966
‘Call in on Jocelyn, who is drawn and shattered but in control. Peggy [Ashcroft] there: we greet with warmth. What is there to say, beyond that expression of sympathy which so exhausts, making one feel the emptiness of one’s heart. Am rather touched when she asks me to escort her to the funeral - and also by the pages which George [Devine] left of the start of his autobiography. ‘For me the theatre is a temple of ideas . . .’

25 January 1966
‘George’s funeral: Peggy had asked me to escort her . . . I get to her house in Frognal lane about 11.30. . . A cup of coffee first. . .  I like Peggy, but there is a sort of mannered constraint about her. . . As we drove she said how she’s thought about George - and been impelled to write it all down: she had been in twenty-five productions with him . . . The funeral: all woeful and treading on emotional glass. We are shepherded by a pale Julian Lousada round to a sort of porch at the side of the chapel, where we wait in a hush. It is sort of awkward because we find it difficult to be spontaneous about such solemnity.’

9 April 1970
‘Thursday. The Council Meeting of the English Stage Company, and the inevitable collapse before the Arts Council threat of withdrawal of subsidy if Hilary Spurling is not reinvited. I tried to propose a press statement first, simply making public the Arts Council’s blackmailing attempt. . . But only Jocelyn and Robin supported it. Interestingly, Oscar and John Osborne were both for immediate capitulation: Peggy Ashcroft’s worried, charming, stupid liberal face radiated desire for the relief and calm of appeasement from the other end of the table . . . Blacksell popped his eyes stupidly, and with incredibly obstinate persistence reiterated his belief that Hilary Spurling ’wasn’t worth it’, and his confidence (genuine or just an excuse or self-deception?) that the Arts Council would be willing to conduct the important discussions about dramatic criticism we’d asked for, after the tiresome difficulty had been disposed of . . . Bill veered erratically, but had abandoned his radical position of the week before.

So we are carried poshly from Le Moulin d’Or to the lawyer’s offices in Tony’s limousine . . . They are all gathered - Greville [Poke] in the chair, George Harewood making one of his rare, much appreciated appearances, John Osborne, careful to sit as far as possible away from Tony (they no longer speak), Peggy [Ashcroft] in a sort of white denim trouser suit, with cap, looking quite dashing and (if you know her) rather preposterous: as if playing Helene Weigel in the Gunter Grass Brecht play at the Aldwych has gone to her head. . .’

From Peter Hall's diaries:

14 April 1972
‘To supper at Peggy Ashcroft’s. She understands what is driving me to the National. Is glad that I am going back to running a theatre, as it is what she thinks I have to do. But she is very sad I am moving away from the RSC. Is this the end of fifteen years work together? It can’t be.’

21 April 1974
‘Peggy and I crept out of the Nunns’ house at quarter to ten, leaving Trevor and Janet still fast asleep. We collected Jenny and Christopher, who were staying with a friend, and then Peggy drove us back to Wallingford.

Peggy is one of those ladies who cannot talk and drive. She makes extravagant gestures and her hands disconcertingly leave the wheel. When I told her that she was a potato in Leicester - that the theatre bar there had a ‘Spud Ashcroft’ stuffed with prawns, she took both hands off the wheel and waved them about with pleasure and amazement. We nearly hit a lorry.

Jenny and Christopher got us lunch back at Wallingford, then we sat in the sun for the afternoon. Jenny talked a good deal to Peggy about Avoncliffe, for Peggy remembers the house well and lived in it for long periods before we did. I am still amazed by Jenny’s inaccuracies. She says, in the childhood memories section, that when Leslie and I split she did not see her mother for two years and didn’t recognise her when she met her. In fact it was two months.’

6 May 1974
‘The Old Vic’s Lilian Baylis celebration, Tribute to the Lady. I had viewed it with foreboding. In the event, it was a very good evening. By far the best item, the achievement, was Lilian Baylis herself, amazingly portrayed by Peggy Ashcroft. It was one of the finest performances I have seen her give. You can always tell when an actor is absolutely creating. Conventional timing, normality, is broken. The rhythm of speech, the rhythm of the body, become something different. This happened to Peggy tonight.

She presented that strange. Cockney, busybodying, straightlaced, crooked-mouthed eternal mother, bossing everybody about - and created a genuine eccentric. And what a mystery it all is. There would be no Royal Ballet, no National Theatre, and I shouldn’t think much Royal Opera, and certainly no Sadler’s Wells, without the dotty, single- minded, good works of Miss Lilian Baylis. Joan Littlewood, though less the do-gooder and more the revolutionary, is in the same tradition.’

16 August 1974
‘All day with Peggy Ashcroft reading through Happy Days. Magnificent play. It excited me to hear her read it. Hard to do well but quite evident what has to be done. A very funny, touching piece: I think one of the masterpieces of the last twenty years. My spirits rose and I longed to begin on it.’

From my own diaries:

25 June 1989
‘The heatwave continues. Cloudless blue skies. Warm languid evenings. Hot dusty days, watering-can days. Half the year nearly over.

B and I went up to Aldeburgh together for I’d bought two tickets for a film premiere at the quaint old cinema, one with a visit by some of the stars promised. The film we saw was another adaptation of an Elizabeth Bowen novel - The Heat of the Day. Dame Peggy Ashcroft has a cameo role, and it was she who graced the cinema with her presence. Though, seeing her there seated in front of us, we imagined her to have had a bigger role in the film. The main actors, Michael York, Patricia Hodge and Michael Gambon were not present. The little cinema was the fullest I’ve ever seen it, nine-tenths of the audience, however, were grey and white-haired old women. Calling the event a ‘world premiere’ was a little grand if understandable. In fact, the film has been made for the BBC, and is quite clearly a TV movie, many close-ups and small sets. It was well-made (screenplay by Harold Pinter).’

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