In Search of Gielgud
The Stage

Every biographer of a living subject has to weigh up the need for honesty with the tendency to flatter.
In his superb 2011 biography John Gielgud: Matinee Idol to Movie Star, Jonathan Croall went to great pains to strike a balance between the public and the private man. It entailed many hours of interviews with friends and colleagues, a colossal reading list and a time-consuming trawl through his film and TV appearances.

The process behind his original biography, published in 2000, shortly after Gielgud’s death, is the subject of Croall’s new book In Search of Gielgud, which takes the form of a diary he kept during the book’s rollercoaster gestation. It is a fascinating and chastening account of the dark art of biography.

Being both theatre junkie and archivist, Croall derived enormous pleasure from linking up with long-forgotten luminaries such as Wendy Hiller, Phyllis Calvert, Geoffrey Toone and Mary Casson, as well as A-listers like Peter Ustinov and Dirk Bogarde.

What made these encounters all the more remarkable was that from the time Methuen first commissioned Croall to write the book, he was competing for material with Gielgud’s authorised biographer, Sheridan Morley, who took great exception to someone else muscling in on what he saw as his exclusive territory.

But Croall refused to be cowed by Morley’s threats and jibes, safe in the knowledge that Gielgud had given the book his blessing. It was only when the actor appeared to withdraw his consent that Croall’s project was truly under threat.

It is a testament to Croall’s tenacity and hard work that the book ever got published. And if he appears to bask a little too lovingly in its rapturous reception at the end of this tortured journey, you forgive him a well deserved pat on his own back.

Nick Smurthwaite

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