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“I only know people in trouble!” An interview with Sir Ronald Harwood

Shrouded enigmatically in a constant veil of smoke, eminent dramatist Sir Ronald Harwood bears all the outward characteristics of a benevolent, old dragon. An Academy Award-winning screenwriter, author and playwright, whose most famous works include The Dresser, The Pianist, Taking Sides and The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, Harwood’s increasing age has in no way wearied his boundless versatility, inimitable humour and youthful sense of rebellion. With the aid of innumerable packets of cigarettes and a generous helping of rich tea biscuits, Harwood paints a picture of twentieth-century theatre that is as riotous as it is seductive.

Born in South Africa in 1934 and immigrating to London at the age of 17, Harwood studied acting at RADA before joining the company of infamous actor-manager Sir Donald Wolfit, an experience that would inspire his most iconic play, 1980’s The Dresser. As Harwood recollects, “I am his servant and his companion, and an actor in his company. He always chose one of the actors to be his dresser.” I ask him whether Wolfit’s belligerent reputation was entirely deserved. “He was a very, very difficult man, but not to me. He was terrific to me, and we became very great friends.”

Harwood paints a picture of twentieth-century theatre that is as riotous as it is seductive

While now regarded as an established playwright, Harwood acted in regional repertory for seven years, and a number of his works (including The Dresser, Quartet, After the Lions and Being Julia) reveal an intimate affection for both the craft of acting and the industry. I suggest that one might easily be tempted to interpret this perennial fixation as an implicit expression of regret. “No, it’s not a regret. It’s a fascination with performing. It’s like – do you like tennis?” I confess that I do. “Well I was a rather good tennis player in my day and I always thought that playing in front of a huge crowd, like a gladiator going into the ring, was a terrifying thing. So I have an interest in the art of performing, and really I love the theatre, so I was bound to love the leading lights and stars. I’ve always been star struck.”

Arriving in London at the height of the so-called ‘heroic acting’ period of John Gielgud, Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave and Ralph Richardson, the young Ronald Harwood had good cause to be star struck. “Gielgud was the first great actor I saw as a member of the audience,” he recalls, “and I stood at the stage door and watched him come out”. He proceeds to regale me with a vivid account of Gielgud’s 1951 Leontes in The Winter’s Tale at the Phoenix: “I can remember the inflections. God he was terrific. I got to know him rather well in later life. He was a dear man.” I ask him whether any of these old titans left their mark on the character of Sir in The Dresser. “Well they all asked me that. Olivier did: ‘Anything of me in it?’ Well there was actually, because Sir calls his wife ‘pussy’ and Larry called Vivien [Leigh] ‘pussy’. I nicked that. And there are other actors, older actors: Sir John Martin Harvey, those people.”

A number of his works reveal an intimate affection for both the craft of acting and the industry

Over the course of an hour’s conversation, I begin to get the impression that there isn’t a single leading man Harwood hasn’t at some point befriended. Alec Guinness (of whom a portrait hangs in Harwood’s hall) was his neighbour for many years. Antony Sher (Harwood’s younger cousin) would babysit his children when he came over from South Africa. At the mention of Michael Gambon, however, Harwood stiffens. “Gambon’s mad, I think. Gambon’s insane.” Bewildered, I ask him to elaborate. “He’s a very sweet man, Michael Gambon. He’s a very charming man. But he fools about a bit, he messes about onstage. I saw him in The Caretaker, and the next morning I phoned Harold [Pinter] and said, ‘You better go in and stop him doing what he’s doing.’ He was scratching his bum for laughs – awful, awful!”

One friend who makes a recurrent appearance in our conversation is Albert Finney, star of the 1983 film adaptation of The Dresser. In the film, Finney appears in a number of scenes from King Lear – a performance he would never transfer to the stage, refusing Peter Hall’s offer while starring at the National in the mid-seventies. “Albert, one day, we were chatting, and he said, ‘I think Lear should make the sound of the storm.’ And he did.” Harwood begins to animate the storm himself: “‘Blow wind and crack thy cheeks!’ And it was chilling it was so good. But he never played it, he never played Lear. It’s a shame.” I ask him whether Finney ever explained his ambivalence towards the part. “No. But Albert, you know, at heart, I don’t think really loves the theatre enough to put himself through that. God he was a marvellous young actor. Bloody hell. He had one of those rare gifts, Albert – still has it – that whenever he comes onscreen or stage, the audience go towards him. Whatever he’s playing, villain, the most evil man in England, the audience go towards him. There’s something in his personality that just enchants. Lovely man.”

Over the course of an hour’s conversation, I begin to get the impression that there isn’t a single leading man Harwood hasn’t at some point befriended

Another subject that dominates much of Harwood’s writing is that of Nazism, as can be seen in his plays Collaboration, Taking Sides and An English Tragedy, along with The Pianist, the film for which he won his Oscar. As a successful and proudly Jewish artist, I ask him whether he considers himself morally obligated to address the events of the War. “I do feel compelled to tell the story. It has been a major part of my work, I think, in my novels, plays and films. I read about it a lot and I think about it a lot. It’s a major event in our history now. I mean, six million people were put to death. That’s a lot of people. You say it very quickly and it’s a very small number, but when you think about it, it’s a lot of people.”

As he announces that he’s working on yet another play dealing with the same themes, I ask him whether there’s a conclusion he’s hoping to reach. “I would love to understand it. I’d love to understand what Germany went through. They were the most cultured people in Europe, and yet they behaved like these awful Barbarians. [Hitler] must have tapped something very deep in the psyche that they responded so unanimously to his philosophies.” As far as Harwood is concerned, anti-Semitic persecution is by no means a thing of the past. “I think there’s a lot of antisemitism about at the moment, especially on the left. Corbyn is an anti-Semite, I think. There’s a book out called The Left’s Jewish Problem and it’s mostly about Corbyn. I think the movement Momentum probably has something to answer for.”

As far as Harwood is concerned, anti-Semitic persecution is by no means a thing of the past

Famously protective of his own work, I ask him whether he considers it a playwright’s duty to closely guard his creations. “Well I think one does get proprietary about this. I mean, Pinter was terrible. Pinter really taught me that you should be a guardian of the work – and he was, my God he was.” I remind him that when his plays have been adapted for the big screen, he has always retained control of the screenplay. “I don’t trust them always. It depends who the director is, really, because film is a director’s medium. Writers are very low in the pecking order.”

Harwood’s belief in the author’s right to creative control plays a large part in his unwavering opposition to gender-blind casting, amending his will to prevent women tackling the leads in The Dresser and suffering unprecedented vitriol for his criticism of Glenda Jackson’s casting as King Lear in 2016. “I believe that you have to follow the playwright. Of course I would. I don’t think he wrote it as a woman, and that’s my view.” I ask him whether he fears that gender-blind casting is here to stay. “I think it’s a trend, and I think it’ll pass. And we’ll think they were totally mad to have this view of the plays. It’s so disrespectful to the author, I think. Lear is obviously a man who’s suffering from old age and dementia and God knows what – why should a woman play it? Why? It’s a political form of casting which I’m deeply against.”

Harwood’s belief in the author’s right to creative control plays a large part in his unwavering opposition to gender-blind casting

I draw Harwood’s attention to the director Roman Polanski, with whom he collaborated on both The Pianist and Oliver Twist. “Polanski’s a remarkable director. He’s one of the greatest directors that’s ever lived. I once said to him, ‘Roman, you speak seven languages. You actually speak eight, and the eighth language is film’. He just knows the grammar of it. Oh God he’s terrific, and I do love him dearly. He’s a darling man. All the trouble he’s in – I only know people in trouble!” “Do you get them in trouble?” I ask. “Do I!,” he scoffs. “I’m a nice Jewish boy from South Africa – how could I get anyone in trouble?”

Fleeing to Europe in 1977 before sentencing for the sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl, Polanski has remained in exile for the last 41 years. I ask Harwood whether he harboured any misgivings about working with the director before embarking on their first collaboration. “No, I didn’t. I’m inclined to separate those things. You know, Wagner was a hideous anti-Semite, but he was a great composer and you’ve got to separate that. Never with Roman, never.”

“I’m a nice Jewish boy from South Africa – how could I get anyone in trouble?”

With his attitude towards Polanski in mind, I ask him for his reaction to the recent revelations in Hollywood and the subsequent Me Too movement. “Well I know Harvey Weinstein too. Shall I tell you a story about him?” The offer is too tempting to resist. “I used to see him when he came to London. When my wife was very ill on her death bed, Harvey said to me, ‘Ron, I’ve got a hospital in New York. We’ll fly your wife over and give her the best treatment in the world. We’ll move the Arabs out!’ he said. And I came back and I told my wife and she burst into tears. It was a terrifically kind offer, but she was too ill to travel and that was that. When I told the Mail on Sunday that very story, they said, ‘Thank you for sharing that with us – we promise not to use it.’ So they didn’t use it. But I mean, it just shows you have to be so politically correct that you don’t even say one good thing about anybody who’s in trouble.”

As an acclaimed screenwriter and Hollywood darling, I remark that one might expect to find him lounging in Los Angeles rather than Kensington. “I think it’s a disaster for a British writer to go to Hollywood. Much better to sit here and be offered something. I mean, we’re cabs for hire, and if the fare looks reasonable you take them on. But I don’t think you should go and live there, because the lifestyle is very seductive: brunches on Sunday, stars and beautiful people. I was asked to go, obviously – you just do a film and they ask you. But I never was tempted.” As Harwood assures me, even the most respected of screenwriters struggle to get their work put to film. “It is disheartening. You work hard on a screenplay and it doesn’t get done. I’ve recently done one of John Le Carre’s novels, which I think is rather good. He’s a lovely bloke, incidentally – he liked it very much, wrote a marvellous letter about it. But it wasn’t done because The Night Manager came in and they wanted that kind of story.”

 “It just shows you have to be so politically correct that you don’t even say one good thing about anybody who’s in trouble”

At the ripe old age of 83, most people would long since have bowed to the pressures of retirement. Harwood, however, will have none of it. “Retirement is such an odd way of thinking about it, because what do you do? What do you differently from what you’re doing now? I mean, I sit here and I think, and I want to write. I’m constantly having ideas – sometimes I haven’t got the energy to pursue them. That’s a different matter, that’s to do with having done so much before, you don’t want to go through that again. But how can you retire? I mean, your mind is active – mine is – and I’m interested in the world.” I ask him whether he considers writing to be the secret to such a youthful, keen mind as his. “I don’t know about my secret but it’s a wonderful gift, a wonderful facility, because it keeps you so alert. The playwright’s mind has an imaginative centre, and it’s a very good insight into people. Only playwrights can know the real centre of a bad marriage, except for the people involved! No one else can get at it. But because we invent the husband and wife, we know what they’re thinking and what they’re doing, why it’s gone wrong.”

As our conversation approaches conclusion, I feel compelled to raise the subject of artistic legacy. Harwood immediately demurs. “I don’t think of my legacy – I think it’s a rather pompous thing to think of! All I think of is, ‘Are the plays going to live at all after my death?’ And I would be very happy if they lived. I think The Dresser will. It’s done all over the world. It’s been done in 38 languages. I saw the first performance of it in a foreign language in Paris when they did it in France and I loved it. I thought it was such a great honour to have a play done in another language.” I push him to abandon diffidence and acknowledge the overwhelming impact of his collected works, but with a characteristic cackle, Harwood remains obstinate. “I really don’t think in those terms. I just think, ‘Does the play get done? Do I get paid?’ That’s all!”


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