Derek Granger on working with Sir Laurence Olivier

Well, we had a wonderful time really, most of the time, but this was David’s idea, when Olivier… you know, I’d worked with Olivier at the National Theatre as literary consultant, and then I’d gone back to Granada and then when Olivier became terribly, terribly ill with this horrible form of cancer, this sort of muscular wasting cancer, which is a very rare cancer, and he nearly… I mean, it was about his 10 serious illnesses in a very short time. He’d been ill with prostate cancer, he’d had kidney trouble, he’d had a bad thrombosis, he’d had everything – and then he had this finally, and he was really in very, very bad shape. And David had the idea, who is his brother-in-law, he was the brother of Larry’s wife, Joan Plowright, and the way to get him back to health was to give him, to give him some work, to give him a really good task to… so he asked him what he would like to do, and Olivier came back with the idea that he would like to do a series of plays – they cooked this up between them – a series of plays for television based on the best plays of the… going back through the century, the best plays of the 20th century. And we ended up with six of them. And I was assigned to work with him because David sensibly thought, “You know him from the National Theatre, you’ve been quite close to him, and now you can work with him. And I became very close to him, because he was… you know, I went out… you know, every day, to his little cottage in Sussex, a rather pretty little malt house where he lived. Not so little actually, but charming in a fairly modest… I mean, it was a… sorry, I made a complete bollocks of that. He lived in this old malt house deep in the heart of Sussex, and I was out there every day and in fact used to stay for quite a lot of nights, and almost… I would stay for quite long periods; I would stay over there for two or three days with him while we were picking out the plays, and I got enormously fond of him. He was very, very companionable, funny and very kind of… in an oddly sweet natured… he would have little surprises for me. I remember once I came in and he said, “Look what I’ve got for you I know you love tea, I went down to Steyning the other day and I bought these little packets of tea. You know, like orange pekoe… there was just gunpowder… and he would be very nice, and we used to swim together in his pool. Because his other great way of getting back to health was to swim and swim. And he was very funny, and as a say, enormously companionable. And then we had… we made our selection and then we went to America together to work with our American co-producers, who were NBC, the great television network, NBC, who were sponsoring two of the plays, two American plays. And they had the veto on anything he chose. Unfortunately, they had a veto on his favourite play – which was by a man called Paul Osborn, called Morning’s at Seven, a rather charming comedy about old people – but they said it didn’t fit into their demographic requirements. And so that was struck down, much to Larry’s chagrin. So we ended up with Cat on a Hot Tim Roof and Come Back, Little Sheba as our two American works, otherwise it was Pinter’s The Collection, Harold Pinter’s The Collection, James Bridie’s Daphne Laureola, and a lovely Italian play, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Houghton’s Hindle Wakes, from one of the old Manchester plays. Wonderful old classic play about a Lancashire mill town. So those were our six plays, and we had a very good time preparing for those. And as I say, he was marvellous in Pinter. He was very funny, Larry, he kind of liked being led to things, and he had never read a book, or even a newspaper, but he loved it when people pointed out things. And I remember him saying to me once, “Isn’t he marvellous, Harold Pinter? Look what he did for the actor, and there are hardly any words on the page!” He was actually stunned by this when he found him, and he made a marvellous… he gave a marvellous performance as the old homosexual couturier, Harry. And it was a very, very good little play, directed by Michael Apted, the great Michael Apted, who was also a Granada trainee, and went on to do two Bond films! So we did that. And the other one I was much concerned… the other side, much concerned with, Daphne Laureola, which was the James Bridie play, which he loved and produced as an actor/manager on the stage in London. So we were very close to that. And then the other one, was of course the big one, was Cat on a Hot Tin Roof where he played Big Daddy. It was very, very odd but something happened to our relationship during the making of the Granada plays. He suddenly… he could be very ferocious, Larry. He had quite a… he could be fairly fierce. …..

He would suddenly cut me out, you know, in a rather embarrassing way. And also would be very sneering when I offered any kind of input. I remember once talking about wardrobe and talking like the American… what American hats had looked like. And I suddenly got this, “Oh, we are experts now, are we, on American hatting!” And I got rather fed up with this. I went to David and said, “Look, I can’t take that bastard any more. You’ve got to let me out. It’s no fun and I’m just having a rotten time. And David, who was very wise, said, “Sit down and I’ll explain what’s happened. He cannot bear you having any authority. He is so jealous, he is so absolutely jealous that you have any command over overtime or things like that, or you can talk to wardrobe, you can actually be part of it, where he feels he must be totally in command he can’t take it. He cannot take that. And I said, “Well, now I understand that, absolutely.” And that was Olivier’s besetting sin. And it came from his childhood, he was profoundly jealous. And when I talked to John Mills years later, I said to John, “Did you ever have a bad time with him?” And he said, “No, but then I was never in a position of rivalry.” He absolutely… he was like a child, he had to be the kingpin – and if he wasn’t, or if he felt any kind of slipping shown that way where he wasn’t totally in command, then you got it in the neck. And it was very funny, you know, he would let months of close friendship disappear. But he had no detachment. Kenneth Tynan said about him, and very shrewdly really, “If I had one word to describe Larry it would be ‘turbulent’.” He was very turbulent. But mixed up with, as I say, companionability, a real genuineness, sweetness, naturalness when you’re with him in an ordinary relaxed situation. He was absolutely wonderful; terribly funny… I remember him climbing out of his pool and saying, “Just look at me, Boycie, to think this was once a Hollywood sex symbol!” You know, he was lovely. He was very sort of rich, and in many ways very warm. And then the moment – the moment – he sensed that you were kind of stepping on his hallowed territory, you would get this extraordinary reaction. And once I knew, I mean, of course, I just covered up, I mean, the secret there was simply to pretend that you hadn’t any authority, that you know, you would let it seem to all come from him, and then he got happy again. And then what it was, we worked on Brideshead together, and we were back, and I was very embedded really, in the family. And so, you know, I’m great friends with Joan Plowright to this day.

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