THE GUVNOR’S WIFE: ENCOUNTERS WITH LAURENCE OLIVIER
‘After his ‘audition’ which included recitations of several Shakespearean roles, he gave us a pair of his shoes’, says filmmaker Don Boyd.
‘After his ‘audition’ which included recitations of several Shakespearean roles, he gave us a pair of his shoes’
The great actor Laurence Olivier had a powerful connection to the cultural life of West Sussex. He was the first artistic director of the Chichester Theatre in 1962 and honed his ambitions for a National Theatre during the 3 years he held that post. Like all young British aspiring filmmakers that had seen his wonderful Shakespearean movies or been to the Old Vic to witness his astonishing stagecraft as an actor (who could forget his Archie Rice in John Osborne’s play The Entertainer?), I was in awe of what he represented. I never for a moment imagined that I would get to know him on a personal level, let alone work with him.
In 1988 I was producing a film version of Benjamin Britten’s oratorio War Requiem. The brilliant (much missed) director Derek Jarman and I had collaborated on a scenario and the BBC had agreed to be our partner which was their first ever investment in a cinema film. I had persuaded the Britten estate to allow us to use the entire score but on the condition that we used no effects or dialogue over the music. I had a notion – why not start what was essentially a silent film with music by having a sequence featuring a first world war veteran. We could then have a voice over from the actor speaking Wilfred Owens’ moving poem Strange Meeting. Derek loved the idea and I laughingly suggested Laurence Olivier. I put in a call to his agent, my friend Denis Selinger, and lo and behold Derek and I found ourselves opposite the great man in his Chelsea home.
His son Richard had been particularly helpful in arranging this – Lord Olivier was 81 and frail. But clearly the prospect of working again had excited him. His delightful nurse of many years told me that I had personally given him a new lease of life and the handwritten letter he wrote to me a few months after we had finished filming and after I sent him our fabulous reviews bore this out. He wanted me to consider him for any other role suitable for an actor between the ages of 55 and 80!
The working experience was eccentric. Before we left after his ‘audition’ which included recitations of several Shakespearean roles, he gave us a pair of his shoes for the costume designer (size 12). He regularly rang me “just to enthuse”. On one occasion he asked me to choose which accent he should use for the poetry and gave me Strange Meeting over the phone in Texan, Irish, Cornish and ‘Larry speak’ – the latter being my obviously preferred option. Before his impeccably delivered recording was made in his trailer on the set which was a disused old hospital in Kent, he had patiently filmed a scene in a wheelchair with the wonderful British actress Tilda Swinton.
He insisted on meeting my wife and daughters and then amazingly agreed to be photographed for publicity purposes. As we all followed him to the makeshift photographic studio specially constructed in the hospital, he shuffled slowly down a corridor occasionally looking over his shoulder. I had followed behind with my wife and two of my daughters. He suddenly stopped and looked around straight at my wife and in his unmistakable carefully pitched theatrical voice, lifting the trilby he was wearing towards her in a gesture of respect boomed out “To the guvnor’s wife”. We all had tears piling down our faces.
He died within months of the film’s release, but he had fulfilled a long-time ambition to work on a film with some of “dear old Ben’s tunes” as he put it to me.
The film director Don Boyd lives in Bosham with Hilary, the guvnor’s wife, and is currently working on two films he has co-written – one set In Morocco, the other in South Africa. Written by Don Boyd exclusively for the commemorative magazine. Copyright.