We flick through the digital archives of the director, classical actor and Hollywood star: Sir John Gielgud.

It is impossible not to adore Sir John Gielgud, the acting legend who, in the 20th-century, was amongst the first to redefine Shakespearean performance. His startling takes on Hamlet, Lear and Richard II, among others, shook off the dreary convention in which they had long been mired, and made them dazzling and fresh once more. His facility for hauteur – as evidenced both on stage in the plays of Wilde and Sheridan, as well as on screen, notably as Mr Ryder in Brideshead Revisited – was second to none that we can think of. Rivalled only by Laurence Olivier in his breadth of ability and in the prolific nature of his work, it is little wonder than his career – which covered everything from the tragic to the comic ridiculous – spanned some eight decades.

If you have never watched the 1980s renditions Brideshead, we urge you to do so, if only to hear him deliver the immortal lines, ‘He ended up in a very queer street.’ You should, too, go away immediately and watch his turns in the Albert Finney-starring Agatha Christie adaptation of Murder on The Orient Express and with Peter Ustinov in Appointment With Death. See him, too, in the David Lynch-directed The Elephant Man. And do make time for the later and lighter comedy; in Arthur with Dudley Moore and Liza Minelli, his Oscar-winning fish-out-of-water supporting role elevates it to something wonderful. Until then, enjoy these clips of interviews with the great man – not least to listen to the soothing tones of his rich sonorous voice.

Image: Allan Warren/ Wikimedia

Interview on Woman’s Hour, 1980

We could listen to John Gielgud speak for hours upon hours. This 1980 interview, broadcast on Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour, is – alas – just eight minutes long. It serves, however, as a wonderful reminder of what a terrifically modest man he was; thoughtful, humble and articulate, despite having worked on the stage for a little shy of 60 years by this point. Here he discusses the transition from stage acting to the naturalism of television and film, and how he always welcomes directors hauling him over the coals for being old-fashioned or hammy. He regales the interviewer with tales his disastrous Othello with Franco Zeffirelli, when his beard came off, pillars fell down and the show went on interminably until 1.30am. Listen here.

On Working With Marlon Brando, The Dick Cavett Show

When, at the start of this interview, Dick Cavett brings up Julius Caesar, the 1953 Shakespeare adaptation in which Gielgud starred alongside Marlon Brando, he accompanies the question with an apology. He had, he says, recently found himself in hot water with Lauren Bacall for mentioning decades-old projects. Sweetly, Gielgud is rather less grand. ‘You won’t get in trouble with me, I’m too old,’ he laughs. He goes on to discuss his somewhat unlikely co-star, describing him as rather ‘shy, worried boy who didn’t really know where he going,’ but who looked wonderful and studied, rather earnestly, how all the greats spoke Shakespeare. As he says, ‘I didn’t want to interfere because I thought they’d probably think I was a show-off from England who was going to teach everyone how to play the bard.’ He reveals that he should have liked to direct Brando as Hamlet, but the idea came to nothing after the star said he didn’t think he dared. This is a lovely interview, in which Gielgud’s kindness and total absence of grand superiority shines through. Watch it here.

Parkinson Interview, 1972

In this audio recording of a 1972 Michael Parkinson interview, Gielgud reveals that, despite a strong thespian heritage, in his youth he harboured dreams of being a designer in the theatre, rather than of acting. When he first walked onto a stage, it was as a student in 1921 – at the Old Vic, no less – though he professes to have simply giggled a bit in all the wrong places. His father disapproved of his son’s later ambitions to act, but Gielgud Junior begged to be allowed not to go back to Oxford, and instead to try the thespian life for a year, after which – if unsuccessful – he would become an architect. Happily, the architecture profession was destined to remain unbothered by his skills (considerable though they may well have been). In spite of his obvious ensuing success, he remained humble. He says, ‘I got enough jobs in that time to get a start. But I was a terribly bad actor at that time. I don’t quite know what encouraged people to go on employing me because I was self-conscious and very inept and everybody laughed at me and several actors in companies told me I’d better not do it…. I thought it was a kind of exhibition business and it took me a long time to discover that you had to reveal something of yourself.’ His stories of his great friend Noel Coward, too, are priceless. A thoroughly charming reminder of why we must collectively resist losing the art of self-deprecation. Listen here.

Hamlet Interview, 1995

Recorded in 1995, when Sir John Gielgud was 91, this interview demonstrates how thoughtful, charming and engaged he remained until the end. Asked about Kenneth Branagh’s 1996 film of Hamlet, in which he played Priam, he expresses his surprise at the director’s decision to use the uncut version, which he deemed something of ‘a marathon for the audience’. He adds, rather sweetly, ‘I never thought I’d have anything to do with the play again, until this came along.’ He goes on to talk about how proud he was of his later film career, judging his earlier efforts as ‘really terrible.’ Watch it here.

BBC World Service Interview, 1995

A wonderful interview in which Gielgud reflects on starring as Spooner in Pinter’s No Man’s Land, and how he modelled the character on WH Auden, having once seen him at a poetry reading at the Young Vic. ‘I saw this man coming down the stairs, with a lock of hair over one eye, soup stains on his suit and awful sandals… he spoke to me very charmingly.’ When the play came into his hands, he suggested to director Peter Hall that Auden should be the model for it. ‘I went off and got the clothes and the wig and put them in and stood on the stage. I said, ‘Do you think this alright?’ and they said, ‘Marvellous’. And I said, ‘Well I must now find a performance to put inside it!’ Tune in here.

Hamlet Explained By John Gielgud, 1954

For anyone who is new to Shakespeare or who has children studying Hamlet at school, this 26-minute audio interview, recorded in 1954, is far more illuminating than any dry book of accompanying notes on the play could ever be. Why? Simply by dint Gielgud having played and been so intimately associated with the titular character – arguably Shakespeare’s greatest ever creation. He played the Dane on stage more than 500 times, starting at the Old Vic in 1929, when – aged 24 – he became the youngest-ever actor to professionally play the role. Along with Olivier’s rendition, his was the standard to which all other 20th-century actors taking on the part were held thereafter. Despite, at the time of this recording, having directed Hamlet as well starring in no fewer than six productions of it, he professes here to still finding new plays within it upon every read. Listen here.

Great Acting, 1966

For a precis of the life of one of the finest actors of the 20th-century, this is a great listen. A completely honest self-critic – deprecating without false modesty – he talks of how much he put of himself into early performances; how much energy he expended in doing so; and how horrified he would be to have to re-watch those performances later.
Listen here.

Alice In Wonderland, 1989

For anyone who wishes to interest young children in the classics, what better way could there be than with this rendition of Lewis Carroll’s classic, Alice in Wonderland, read sublimely by Sir John Gielgud? There is no finer Sunday-ish thing than to make a cup of tea and lose yourself in this surrealist tale – no matter your age. Listen here.

By Nancy Alsop
April 2021

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Nancy Alsop


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