Song & Farce Man

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The subtitle of Oliver Soden’s biography of Noël Coward suggests that the reader will be presented with versions of Coward and be talked through each. This reader could discern only one life: that of performer. Although he made the occasional departure from the world of greasepaint – such as when he worked for the government before and during the Second World War – his life was basically one massive act of self-reinvention from struggling actor living with

Such Sweet Sorrow

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

In 1611, the Somerset-born traveller Thomas Coryat described an Italian architectural novelty: a ‘very pleasant little tarrasse, that jutteth or butteth out from the maine building: the edge whereof is decked with many pretty little turned pillers … to leane over’. England’s introduction to the balcony came over a decade after the first performance of William Shakespeare’s tragedy Romeo and Juliet. When it was staged in the summer of 1596, just before London’s playhouses were closed owing to a resurgence of plague, the exchange now universally known as the ‘balcony scene’ was probably transacted at a window opening onto the backstage

Dressed For Success

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

AT THE AUCTION sale of his possessions a few months after his death in 1926, Rudolph Valentino was found to have owned 51 suits, 111 ties, 60 pairs of gloves, 146 pairs of socks, 10 pairs of suspenders, 6 pairs of garters (with tassels) and 110 silk handkerchiefs. Among the jewellery was the platinum slave […]

Dollar Sign On His Heart

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

The Kennedy family has so often been likened to the House of Atreus in Greek mythology that the comparison has become something of a cliché. But reading this absorbing, first-rate and scholarly study of the founding father, Joseph Kennedy, makes one realise how apt the analogy is. Atreus originally brought down the curse by killing […]

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The Power of Dance

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

When Kenneth MacMillan was fourteen, as he related forty years later, ‘I woke up one day … to find that everything had crystallised. I had to be a ballet dancer.’ He screwed up his courage and went to see the local dancing teacher in Great Yarmouth. He tapped on her door and blurted out, ‘I […]

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Coarse and Classy

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

Like the American actress Tallulah Bankhead, the Australian-born Coral Browne was celebrated not only for her mastery of any role, however feebly written or demanding, but also for her imperious elegance and savage wit. As with Bankhead, the edge of that wit was continually sharpened by the word to which the subtitle of this biography […]

King of Hokum

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

DeMille is not a name that has lived on, like Hitchcock, Welles or Ford. Yet in his time Cecil B DeMille was the most commercially successful showman-autocrat in Hollywood, whose films by 1942 were estimated to have sold 800 million tickets. An unashamed vulgarian, he capitalised on subjects that one is supposed to avoid in […]

Look Back In Wonder

Posted on by Jonathan Beckman

To Guardian readers, the premise of State of the Nation will come as no surprise. A history of British theatre since the war, it makes no mention of theatre in its main title, following Michael Billington’s belief that a nation and its theatre are inseparable. I share that belief, though always with relief that I […]

All the World Was His Stage

Posted on by Frank Brinkley

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 […]

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