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Ronnie Sharpens the Knife

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I see from Richard Kay's diary in the Daily Mail that I'm soon to receive my come-uppance from pompous playwright Ronald Harwood, who has done me the great honour of reserving "a special place" for me in his forthcoming autobiography.

"He's going to get it," says Ronnie ominously, so I'd better start saving up for some life insurance. Or perhaps I should execute a complete spoiler and perform a critical volte face, renounce my former sins and seek guidance from Tim Walker of the Sunday Telegraph who rates Ronnie as our greatest living playwright (and his sometime director, Patrick Garland, our greatest living director).

It's true that I panned Quartet, a poor man's version of Noel Coward's Waiting in the Wings crossed galumphingly with David Storey's Home, which is now being filmed by Dustin Hoffman, but I thought I'd been pretty fair about the old boy down the years, though his best work came early on in The Dresser (especially when Freddie Jones played "Sir") and in his exuberant, very touching biography of Donald Wolfit.

The low point was probably his utterly embarrassing play about Gustav Mahler, but I was scarcely alone in excoriating that aberration, and at least gave points for effort to Ronnie's cousin, Antony Sher, who loyally took on the role of the composer and bore the brunt of its box office failure every night.

The slightly awkward thing about all this is that Ronnie is himself a damned fine critic and theatre historian, albeit fairly conservative. Unlike his great friend and idol, Harold Pinter, he loathes everything to do with the Arts Council and the Royal Court, for instance, and is deeply offended by the National Theatre's reluctance to present any of his work.

He once made an excellent television series about the theatre and indeed invited a few critics, myself included, to help him out in his researches. His Faber Book of the Theatre is a wonderfully instructive and entertaining anthology. He also arranged a fest-shrift volume for John Gielgud's eightieth birthday and invited me to contribute a chapter.

When I bumped into Gielgud a few years later, I reminded him that I'd last met him at the publicity launch for that book. He groaned and moaned about how awful the book was, how embarrassing, how badly written and edited it had been.

A few days later I received a post card from the great actor apologising for his gracelessness: "It was a wholly regrettable exercise," he said, "apart, of course, from your own very witty and perceptive contribution."

Maggie Smith appeared with Edward Fox in a play of his, Interpreters. One night Ronnie popped his head round her dressing room door to say hello and promptly had it bitten right off. "Hello, Ronnie, and what are you up to now?" "Struggling with a new play, darling," Ronnie replied. Maggie paused and inspected her nails: "Aren't we all?"

There was more struggling last night at the Arts, where Bette and Joan -- a deadly resurrection of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford feuding in adjacent dressing rooms -- bit the dust big time, despite the best efforts of an "up for it" audience including Paul O'Grady and Cilla Black.

I'm afraid to have to report that even the lubricious chuckling of Christopher Biggins petered out after half an hour or so. Greta Scacchi was once one of the most beautiful Yelenas ever seen in Uncle Vanya (alongside Michael Gambon and Jonathan Pryce), but her beauty is, or at least was, of an entirely different order to that of Bette Davis.

Scacchi goes for an impersonation, but succeeds only in reducing Davis to a level of harmless oddity. And Anita Dobson's idea of Joan Crawford's bitchiness is to play her as a vulgar tart from a British television soap opera. Where was the elegance, style and sheer glamour of these great Hollywoood divas? On the cutting room floor, I'm afraid.
I think even Ronnie Harwood might have made a better fist of their professional prowess and antipathies, but he knows better than to mess around with reputations unless you have something positive to contribute; not a lesson I've learned myself, apparently.


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