The Pigeon Tunnel: Stories from My Life - John le Carré (2016)
Chapter 29. Alec Guinness
Alec Guinness died with his customary discretion. He had written to me a week before his death expressing concern about his wife Merula’s illness. Typically he had scarcely mentioned his own.
You could never tell Alec how great he was, of course. If you were fool enough to try, you got the hairy eyeball. But in 1994, to celebrate his eightieth, a successful clandestine operation mounted by the publisher Christopher Sinclair-Stevenson produced a handsome bound volume called ‘Alec’, which was given to him for his birthday. It contained memoirs, poems, simple expressions of affection and thanks, mostly from old friends. I wasn’t there to see the presentation, but I’m sure Alec was suitably grumpy about receiving it. But perhaps he was also a little pleased, if only because he cherished friendship as deeply as he loathed praise, and here at least was a bunch of his friends under one cover.
By comparison with most of the contributors to the presentation volume, I was a latecomer to Alec’s life, but we had worked closely together on and off for five years or so, and we had remained agreeably in touch ever since. I was always proud of our relationship, but my proudest moment came when he selected the piece I had written for his eightieth birthday as a preface to his last volume of reminiscences.
Alec was adamant that he wished no memorial service, no posthumous gathering of friends, no emotional outpourings. But I have the excuse of knowing that this little portrait was one that this immensely private man was content to offer the world.
What follows is taken in part from my preface to his autobiographical memoir, with a few afterthoughts:
He is not a comfortable companion. Why should he be? The watching child inside this eighty-year-old man has still found no safe harbours or easy answers. The deprivals and humiliations of three-quarters of a century ago are unresolved. It is as though he were still striving to appease the adult world about him; to winkle love from it, to beg its smile, to deflect or harness its monstrosity.
But he loathes its flattery, and mistrusts its praise. He is as wary as children learn to be. He gives his trust slowly, and with the greatest care. And he is ready any time to take it back. If you are incurably fond of him, as I am, you do best to keep that fact to yourself.
Form is desperately important to him. As someone all too familiar with chaos, he treasures good manners and good order. He inclines gratefully to the good-looking, but also loves clowns, apes and quirkish figures in the street, gazing on them as if they were his natural allies.
Day and night he studies and stores away the mannerisms of the adult enemy, moulds his own face, voice and body into countless versions of us, while he simultaneously explores the possibilities of his own nature - do you like me better so? - or so? - or so? - ad infinitum. When he is composing character, he steals shamelessly from those around him.
Watching him putting on an identity is like watching a man set out on a mission into enemy territory. Is the disguise right for him? (Him being himself in his new persona.) Are his spectacles right? - No, let’s try those. His shoes, are they too good, too new, will they give him away? And this walk, this thing he does with his knee, this glance, this posture - not too much, you think? And if he looks like a native, will he speak like one - does he master the vernacular?
And when the show is over, or the day’s shoot, and he is once more Alec - the fluid face shiny from the makeup, the small cigar trembling slightly in the thick hand - you can’t help feeling what a dull world he has come back to after all the adventures he has had out there.
He may be a solitary, but the former naval officer also loves to be part of a team. He wishes nothing better than to be well led, able to respect the meaning of his orders and the quality of his comrades. Acting with them, he knows their lines as well as he knows his own. Beyond all self-consideration, it is the collective illusion that he treasures most, called otherwise The Show: that precious other world where life has meaning, form and resolution, and events proceed according to written rules.
Working on scripts with him is what Americans call a learning experience. One scene may go through a dozen versions before he is persuaded by it. Another, for no reason, is nodded through without debate. It’s only later, when you see what he has decided to do with it, that you discover why.
The disciplines he imposes on himself are rigorous, and he expects no less of others. I was present once when an actor who has since become teetotal turned up drunk for filming - not least because he was terrified of acting opposite Guinness. The offence, in Alec’s eyes, was absolute: the poor man might as well have gone to sleep on sentry duty. But ten minutes later Alec’s anger had given way to an almost desperate kindliness. The next day’s shoot went like a dream.
Ask Alec to dinner, he will be on your doorstep brushed and polished while the clock is still chiming the appointed time, never mind the blizzard that has brought London to a standstill. If you are his guest - a more likely eventuality, since he is a compulsively generous host - then a postcard, in neat and beautiful handwriting sinking gracefully to the south-east, will confirm the arrangement you made on the telephone the day before.
And you will do well to repay him the courtesy of his punctuality. Your gestures matter very much to him. They are a mandatory part of life’s script, they are what distinguishes us from the indignity and disorder of his wretched early years.
But God forbid that I should paint him as a stern man.
Alec’s bubbling laughter and good fellowship, when they come, are all the more miraculous for the uncertain weather that preceded them. The sudden beam of pleasure, the marvellously paced anecdotes, the flashes of physical and vocal mimicry, the mischievous dolphin smile that spreads and flits away, are all before me as I write. Watch him in the company of fellow actors of every age and provenance, and you see him settle to them like a man who has found a favourite fireside. The new never shocks him. He loves to discover young talent and give it a helping hand along the hard road he has trodden.
And he reads.
Some actors, offered work, first count their lines to calculate the importance of the part. Alec is as far removed from them as it is possible to be. No film director, producer or screenwriter of my acquaintance has a better eye for structure and dialogue, or for that extra something that he is perennially on the scent of: the McGuffin, the bit of magic that lifts a piece out of the common ruck.
Alec’s career is studded with brilliant and unlikely roles. The talent that chose them was as inspired as the talent that performed them. I have heard too - is it one of Alec’s well-kept secrets? - that his wife Merula has much influence on his selections. I would not be in the least surprised. She is a wise and quiet woman, and a most gentle artist, and she sees a long way.
What joins us, then, those of us who have been lucky enough to share a mile or two of Alec’s long life? I suspect, a constant bewilderment about who to be for him. You want to show him your love, but you want also to give him the space he clearly needs. His talent is so near the surface that your immediate instinct is to protect it from the buffetings of daily life. But then he can manage quite nicely by himself, thank you.
So we become like the rest of his great audience: frustrated givers, never able to express our gratitude, reconciled to being the beneficiaries of the genius he so resolutely refuses to acknowledge.
It is lunchtime on the top floor of the BBC, one summer’s day in 1979. The cast, crew, producers, director and writer of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy are gathered in their best suits, sipping at their warm white wine, one glass each, before proceeding to the dining room where a celebratory feast of cold chicken awaits them.
But there is a small delay. The gong has sounded, the BBC’s barons are on parade. The writer, producers and director have long been present and correct. The barons are sticklers for time. The cast too has arrived early and Alec, as ever, earlier still. But where, oh where, is Bernard Hepton, our leading supporting actor, our Toby Esterhase?
As our glasses of wine get warmer, all eyes gravitate towards the double doors. Is Bernard ill? Has he forgotten? Is he sulking? It is rumoured there was friction on set between Alec and Bernard.
The doors part. With studious unconcern, Bernard makes his entrance, dressed not in the dreary greys and navy blues of the rest of us, but in a three-piece suit of shrill green check, set off by orange patent shoes.
As he advances smiling into the room, the melting voice of George Smiley rings out in welcome:
‘Oh, Bernard. You came as a frog.’