Alastair Sim – Mark Simpson (2008) – A Real Life Review

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Alastair

Perhaps the most surprising thing about this biography of one of Britain’s most loved film stars of the 1950s is that there’s really not an awful lot to know about him. Mark Simpson portrays him as an intensely private man who shunned anything to do with the celebrity trappings of showbiz, spurning all autograph hunters and rarely giving interviews. Nowadays, it would not be possible to become a household name and demand (and get) such privacy but Alastair Sim’s world was a very different place.

Born in Edinburgh in 1900 the young Sim was a keen public speaker and became a teacher of elocution, eventually lecturing at the university. He gave this up to set up his own drama school and ended up coming to London performing verse plays and hoping to become a West End director but instead finding more stage and then film work. Part of his reticence towards publicity, Simpson suggests, might have something to do with his wife, who was 14 years younger than him and who he met when she was a young looking 12 and he a very mature looking 26. There was no evidence of impropriety between the two but the budding actor would have been very aware as to how this would have looked to outsiders, and particularly, sections of the press. In fact, Alastair and Naomi Sim were fairly inseparable until the end of his life.

Simpson is keen to play down any salacious suggestion from his subject. Sim was also a strong mentor to the young George Cole, with Cole living with the family and regularly working with Alastair. Simpson airs the rumours that fluttered around this but doesn’t dig too far or feels that there was anything behind it. Anyone looking for scandal isn’t going to find it here.

alastair2Alastair Sim & George Cole from “St Trinians”

Most of us will know Sim from a run of films in the 1950s which have been regularly shown on television ever since. From this it’s possible to think he was on screen more than he actually was. He was actually more prolific  in long-forgotten films from the pre-war years which were being churned out to fulfil quotas for British films in British cinemas. Such were the lasting popularity of his work in his golden years that I realised I had seen virtually all of them, despite them being from before I was born. “St. Trinian’s”, “The Happiest Days Of Your Life,” “Scrooge”, “London Belongs To Me”, “School For Scoundrels” all allowed Sim to play Sim (even in a dress as headmistress Miss Fritton) and this is just what the British public and I loved. In that sense he is very much the male counterpart of another great British eccentric, also famed for playing variations of herself, Margaret Rutherford, and when the two are paired together it is an absolute joy.

Alastair4Margaret Rutherford and Alastair Sim

I did feel that Simpson’s biography is a little under-stated but sources are inevitably limited for a man who was said to be “uninterviewable”. I’m actually glad that there wasn’t scandal. I wanted my admiration for this unique actor not to be tainted in any way. He was a complex, aloof man whose dogged obstinacy got in the way of his career and yet was one of the great warm-hearted eccentric characters of mid-twentieth century British cinema.

threestars

Alastair Sim was published by The History Press in 2008.

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The Mitford Girls – Mary S. Lovell (2001) – A Real Life Review

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Mary S. Lovell’s sixth publication reads like a labour of love.  Her subjects are a biographer’s dream.  She must have been inundated with material for this thoroughly researched work.  The big decision must have been just what to include and what to leave out as the Mitford sisters have generated so much print over the decades.

 It would be a big enough job for a biographer to focus on one of the sisters but Lovell here tackles all six, not entirely forgetting brother Tom, the third of the seven children.  Read any account of British history of the period and at least one Mitford is likely to appear, even if on the sidelines, particularly anything which examines the upper classes of the first half of the twentieth century.  In fiction too, their influence can be felt as inspiration for characters in many novels as well as directly influencing English Literature through Nancy’s highly regarded novels published from the mid 1930s to early 1960s.

 I didn’t know a huge amount about them and was never sure who was who. (I haven’t read any of Nancy’s novels but intend to).  Six attractive high society girls (their father was Baron Redesdale) who between them spanned the whole range of political beliefs.  Nancy (1904-73) became a novelist known for her autobiographically based novels and waspish humour; Pamela (1907-94) was the most sedate of the bunch who lived a more rural-based life; Diana (1910- 2003) who became one of the country’s most notorious women when she fell in love with Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Fascists; Unity (1914-48) who arose stronger feelings in the popular press through her friendship with Hitler; Jessica (1917-96) who, at the other end of the spectrum, became a radical Communist and Deborah (1920-2014) who became the Duchess of Devonshire and regenerated Chatsworth House.

mitfordsThe Mitford Sisters

 Admittedly, it does take a while to get the girls sorted out one from another in their younger days but things become certainly clarified in the years leading up to World War II.  It is extraordinary that these six girls came from the same privileged family.  Lovell’s approach is largely non-judgemental which can seem a little odd but is probably the best way to deal with six such disparate characters.  In fact there are seven as we must count their mother Sydney (1840-1963) who manages to keep things together but must have been driven mad by the unpredictable antics of her daughters.

 It has been 17 years since this book’s publication and now none of the sisters are  with us (Diana and Deborah were both alive in 2001) maybe a new updated edition would make this work seem complete.  Since writing this the author has focused upon another major family of the period and relatives of the Mitfords- “The Churchills” (2011).  Her latest work (2017) focuses on the high society who frolicked at Cannes in 1920-60.

 Reading this fascinating biography has given me a taste for the fiction of this period – I must read Nancy Mitford and work my way once again through Evelyn Waugh at the very least.  This, however, is a tale of a family which is stranger than fiction and Mary S. Lovell does a great job at bringing these women to life.

fourstars

 The Mitford Girls was published by Abacus in 2001.

Stronger – Jeff Bauman with Bret Witter (Blink 2017) – A Real Life Review

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stronger

 

“Stronger” is the story of Jeff Bauman, a man in the wrong place at the wrong time- the finishing line of the Boston Marathon 2013 when a terrorist bomb exploded.  Jeff lost both legs in the blast and became the figurehead for “Boston Strong”, the city’s defiant response to the atrocity.

The film version is dominated by a mesmerising Oscar-worthy performance by Jake Gyllenhaal.  I was less comfortable with the depiction of those around him.  The working-class American culture of sport, beer and banter I found quite distancing and I was concerned this might be amplified in the book.

It actually isn’t.  I found the book less sobering and more hopeful.  In the film Jeff seems quite isolated from those around him trying to do his best of him.  I felt the support more appropriate in the book with him existing less as a vacuum.  He is involved with others injured in the blast right from the start, he is actually with a couple of his girlfriend’s friends at the Marathon and not alone as shown in the film and their recovery does influence his.

The narrative arc of the film puts Jeff into a downward spiral which levels out only when he eventually agrees to meet Carlos, the man who saved his life at the scene, whereas Carlos was actually a vital part in Jeff’s recovery right from the start.

Of course, real life is more complex than movie adaptations and I got a lot from the book about the stages Jeff went through, both physically and mentally and he comes across more rounded than the film’s depiction. There he is portrayed as the man who “never shows up”, the irony being when he did he ended up losing his legs.  In real life he seems more reliable and supportive.  Smaller events have been combined and ramped up to add dramatic value to the movie, inevitably.  The film should be seen for its tour-de-force lead performance and strong back-up from Miranda Richardson as well as hitting home one man’s determination to succeed.  The book should be read for its stronger emphasis on hope and support and for a community’s response to a personal tragedy caused by atrocity.

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Stronger was published in 2017 by Blink Publishing.  My review of the film version can be found here

 

A Life Discarded – Alexander Masters (Fourth Estate 2016) – A Real Life Review

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Biographer Alexander Master’s latest highly unusual subject following his acclaimed 2006 “Stuart: A Life Backwards” (excellent TV adaptation starring Tom Hardy in 2007) and “Simon: The Genius In My Basement” (2012) made its presence known following a discovery in a skip.  A friend found 148 diaries abandoned in Cambridge.  He passed them on to another friend and when she became ill Alexander became the keeper of this extraordinary find, a vast number of diaries and notebooks filled with great intensity over a period of decades by person unknown.

What Masters had in his home was the work of the most prolific diarist of all time (Guinness Book of Records had recognised “newspaperman” Edward Robb Ellis’ 22 million words but here is something like 40 million words ) a record of one life and found in a skip.

It took Masters five years to discover the identity of the diarist.  The words became something of an obsession for him.  He pored over the writing looking for clues, at writing which became smaller as the writer aged becoming miniscule in later volumes.  A life which had begun with hope and optimism with many potential avenues became frustrated, disturbed even close to madness as the sequence continued.

I’m purposely giving little away about Masters’ subject because the gradual uncovering of the biographical details is one of the great strengths of this book.  Biographers obviously begin with research and getting to know and understand their subject before putting pen to paper, here we get a fascinating alternative process of nothing being known and everything having to be deduced from a personal monologue.  Diaries are not the best way to discover some things, even the basic biographical details such as gender, name, description are rare in this type of personal writing (why would you write about the things you know already?) and remained very much hidden amongst the millions of words.  The very nature of diaries is their tendency to be outlets for outpourings of the irrational and unanalysed.  So how much of a person’s life is actually revealed in this way?

This is certainly a real life with a difference and it is the process rather than the life itself which becomes gripping.  Extracts from the diary are not as prevalent as might be expected and are more used to put together a picture of the writer and why their life’s work ended up in a skip.  It reminded me occasionally of Alan Bennett’s “Lady In a Van” but instead of the physical presence of Miss Shepherd  turning up outside in her old van here we have the presence of the 148 volumes which takes over Master’s existence in much the same way as  Miss Shepherd did.

Another strength is how Masters’ biography has to shift gears as details are uncovered.  We have seen this recently in Kate Summerscale’s “The Wicked Boy” which changes track when research brings something astonishing about her subject to light but Masters is doing this all the time as assumptions are proved incorrect often built from passing remarks and gut feelings.  The twists and turns in the development of his narrative are really quite thrilling.

There, I think I’ve completed this without giving much away.  This book is best approached as a blank slate to really get maximum enjoyment from it.  Read it before you find out too much about it.

fourstars

A Life Discarded was published by Fourth Estate in hardback in May 2016 and in paperback in February 2017.  Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.