Gay and Lesbian Humanist

Autumn 2002

Straight Face, by Nigel Hawthorne

reviewed by Dan O’Hara

The much-loved British actor finished this autobiography just two days before his death from cancer on Boxing Day 2001. He wrote in the full knowledge of his impending end, but would not show the manuscript to his long-term partner, Trevor Bentham, or indeed to anyone else, before posting it to his publisher on Christmas Eve.

This is a pity, for the book might have been better if he had. In his brief Epilogue, Trevor describes Nigel as “in many ways ... a paradox: he was a conservative socialist, an agnostic Christian, a heterosexual homosexual ...” – and the causes are not hard to find in his family history.

One of four children of a family doctor, Nigel was born in 1929 in Coventry, but they all went to South Africa when he was three, and he grew up in an environment in which there was a lot of discipline but, it seems, little affection. He had a difficult relationship with a stern father whom he could never please, and who sent him to a Christian Brothers school, which he understandably loathed, but which gave him his first taste of applause on the stage.

Moving to England in the early 1950s, he took a long time to establish himself as an actor, and he regards Joan Littlewood, who had faith in him when others didn’t, and put him in Oh! What a Lovely War, as the true author of his eventual success. First on the stage, in such parts as Major Flack in Privates on Parade and CS. Lewis in Shadowlands (a part later played on television by Joss Ackland and on the silver screen by Anthony Hopkins), and then in television as Georgie Pilson in Mapp and Lucia and Sir Humphrey Appleby in Yes, Minister! and the sequel Yes, Prime Minister!, he won both popular and critical acclaim. But it was as an unforgettable George III in Alan Bennett’s The Madness of King George (stage and film) that he achieved true greatness. His last major role, King Lear for the Royal Shakespeare Company, drew mixed reviews; but by then he was mortally sick.

Though the book might have been better had it been through the usual editorial processes, it has at least a certain immediacy and a disarming modesty which will appeal to his many admirers. He is frank about his unsatisfactory earlier relationships, but he was fortunate to find a true rock of a friend in Trevor Bentham, with whom he shared the last 22 years of his life. On a personal note, I particularly liked his evocative description of the (long-defunct) West End gay club, the A & B, which he frequented in the fifties and sixties. It sounds exactly as I knew it in the seventies. Ah, happy days!

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Created : Sunday, 2002-11-03 / Last updated : Wednesday, 2007-12-12
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