Morley was 65 years old and died in his sleep – not, as he might have preferred, during a play that had failed to keep him awake – but at home in London. His second wife and fellow critic Ruth Leon summed up what happened: “We went to bed, we went to sleep, and he never woke up. It was peaceful for him, but a shock for us.”
Morley was born to the theatrical purple, no less than was a Redgrave or a Fox, and he lumbered genially around Shaftesbury Avenue as of right, just as his father had done for twenty years – only on the stages themselves – after the Second World War
His best years as a critic were on the weekly magazines Punch and the Spectator, where he was fluent, always readable and especially well-informed in the areas of light comedy and the musical theatre. His later years were dogged by depression and he suffered a stroke, but still he carried on, slightly dazed by prescribed drugs. Latterly, his reviews in the Daily Express were often penned by Ruth, sometimes with his byline and then with her own. It was not a dignified end to a notable career.
Sheridan was born on 5 December 1941 on the day his father opened in the comedy The Man Who Came to Dinner, in which he played the monstrous gate-crasher Sheridan Whiteside, a character based on the American critic Alexander Woolcott. Thus the new baby critic was christened Sheridan, a blessing which failed to reconcile Robert to his son’s later calling. When asked what it felt like to have a son as a critic, Robert replied that is was like being in charge of the Israeli army and discovering that your son was an Arab.
Still, father and son were very close, although because of Robert’s fame and overpowering personality, Sheridan always felt he had a lot to live up to. He refused to explore the darker consequences of this situation in his biography of Robert in 1993, an entertaining ramble rather than a piercing analysis. Instead, as much on the page as in life itself, Sheridan assumed Robert’s cavalier attitude towards anything too po-faced or modern in the theatre, which existed, for him, as a preferable alternative to life itself.
He studied French at Oxford University, taught drama for a year in Honolulu (where he met both Bette Midler and his first wife, Margaret Gudejko, with whom he had three children), became a newscaster with ITN and, most notably, a presenter of BBC 2’s Late Night Line-up, alongside Joan Bakewell, Tony Bilbow and Michael Dean.
On Line-Up, he reviewed first nights and interviewed the stars, a dual role he continued in print; his Punch reviews were complemented by a series of showbusiness interviews for The Times which were models of their kind in summarising a career in a few, well-informed paragraphs. After the Coward biography, there followed readable tomes on Gertrude Lawrence, Marlene Dietrich, the Hepburns (Katharine and Audrey), David Niven and countless others. With Ruth, he wrote coffee table books on Gene Kelly and Cameron Mackintosh.
Feet planted immovably on either side of the footlights, he devised two stage shows about his heroes. The first, Noel and Gertie , first seen at the King’s Head in 1982 starring Simon Cadell and Joanna Lumley, was often revived and seen off-Broadway with Twiggy. The second, Spread a Little Happiness in 1991, was a soft-centred tribute to the composer Vivian Ellis. As a director, Sheridan had some success with his revival of Coward’s late play Song at Twilight in 1999, although when I described the production as “stuttering” he took mysterious exception to my review on behalf of people with stammers everywhere.
His big project was the authorised biography of John Gielgud, which he eventually published in 2001, a year after Gielgud’s death. It was disappointingly slapdash, full of errors and hollow generalisation and frankly upstaged by a more journeyman account of Gielgud’s career by the relatively unknown academic Jonathan Croall. The rivalry escalated into some unpleasant spats in the media. Still, anecdotes sometimes came to the rescue, as in the oft-told one of Gielgud ringing Morley in horror: “You’ll never believe this; in America they are actually about to name a theatre after a drama critic. Oh my God, you are one. Goodbye.”
- by Michael Coveney