Philip Ziegler: Lawrence Olivier Biography Book Festival

“Cry God for Harry…England and Saint George!” “Now is the winter of our discontent…” “Is it safe? Is it safe? Is it…safe?” “My taste includes both snails and oysters.”

Any clues as to who uttered those iconic lines from the movies? Well, they were all spoken on screen by an English born actor who would become a Lord of the realm, dominate the acting profession for over 5 decades, and create the National Theatre, amongst his many accomplishments. He was of course Sir Laurence Olivier. And it was the mighty, majestic life of this acting giant that was discussed at great length and depth at the Edinburgh Book Festival by author Philip Ziegler, whose biography of the man himself has just been published.

What makes this particular biography special from all the others that have been written about Olivier in the past, is that Ziegler had at his disposal 50 hours of recorded interviews by the great man that have never been used before. So what is included in the book is a fascinating insight into Olivier the man, the actor and the legend. An unvarnished and undiluted take on the world of film and the theatre, when men like Olivier, Gielgud, Richardson etc ruled supreme.

So what was it about Olivier that set him up higher than all of his contemporaries? Author Ziegler offered to the audience his theories of what made him really tick. This included his boldness, bravado, courage, driven determination, as well his matchless leadership and organisational qualities. A rare and special package indeed, that went hand in hand with Olivier’s undoubted technical expertise on the stage, and a peerless ability to assimilate and subordinate himself into any part or role, regardless of how very different they might be. He also had enormous sex appeal, and a sense of menace and danger in his acting (as well as an often outrageous sense of humour) that could shake an audience out of any preconceived ideas they may have imagined about him.

But what I really wanted to ask the author was a question that was burning away in my mind: is Olivier still an important, significant and relevant figure for today’s audiences?
For example, if you were to ask any average 20 year old what they know about Sir Laurence Olivier, you may very well be met with a puzzled look or a blank expression.
A bit harsh perhaps? But I too have a theory that although many may have heard of his name, they wouldn’t be all that sure as to who he is, and the measure of greatness that he aspired to during his lifetime.

Sadly, he and the majority of his contemporaries, belong to a generation of actors and acting styles that are generally viewed today as “old hat”, over the top” “stagy” or even “hammy”. Perhaps amongst those great theatrical Knights of yesteryear, only Sir Alec Guinness is still looked upon as a relevant figure. And that may well be down to a certain character he played on screen, a few years back – in a galaxy far…far…away.

However, Philip Ziegler (whose past work has included a major biography on Lord Mountbatten) whetted the reading appetites of his audience for a glimpse into a life well lived (and not forgetting the odd touch of scandal, back-stage gossip, outright bitchiness and sex, lots of sex!) by a man who as one critic observed, “bestrides his profession like a colossus…”

Lawrence Lettice