It is surprising to find Philip Ziegler writing a theatrical biography. His background is in heavyweight (well, middleweight, anyway) political biography – Mountbatten, Edward VIII, Harold Wilson, Edward Heath. I have always found him to be too reverential and pro-Establishment, so I did not have high expectations when I picked up this book. However, Ziegler has not only surprised but confounded me. He writes with economy, lucidity and directness, and his enthusiasm for the subject is positively youthful; this volume could have been written by a man in his thirties, yet Ziegler is in his eighties. Hats off, then.
We can begin with the unexceptionable proposition that Olivier was a dual man. The ‘good’ Olivier manifested himself mostly in his custodianship of the infant National Theatre from 1963 to 1973. Ziegler gives us full measure on these years, and it becomes clear that Olivier was a theatrical titan, a