Saturday, September 1st, 2007

The house, built in 1812 of grey limestone, slumps square on a low hill beside the Clun Valley.   On each elevation, there are three tiers of windows, buttresses on the corners and two gables topped by stone pinnacles.  A red open top Alvis with white wheel hubs stands in the forecourt. And two chocolate Labradors, Barnum and Bailey, and a Springer Spaniel, called Offa bark enthusiastically as they race around the sculpture of a nymph, who, in a classic Pirelli pose, is raising her gown to reveal superior buttocks.  A man, tall, hirsuit and thin as a lath, stands framed by the gothic arch of a leaning, castellated porch.  He is dressed for effect in straw boater, tilted at a quizzical angel, striped blazer, cheque shirt and floppy red cravat.  His narrow trousers, the colour of over-ripe aubergine, end three inches too high above the ankle revealing red socks patterned with green frogs and a pair of white trainers.  His left hand clutches a bottle of Dom Perignon, while with his right, he makes an expansive gesture, spilling champagne from a silver tankard.   His whiskery grin reveals false teeth but real pleasure.  His voice is deep, resonant and a little camp.  ‘Welcome, my darlings, to Chateau Calamity.’       

This scene would have greeted house guests arriving at The Hurst in 1990.   John and Helen Osborne had moved to Shropshire from Kent just 4 years earlier.  Many had been surprised.  John, the angry young man of British theatre, had gone soft, they said.  Helen, ten years younger and one time drama critic and Arts editor or The Observer, had sacrificed her power and influence too young. But for others who knew them better, there was no mystery;  it was simply a matter of love.  

I went to the farm by the river below the house to meet Joyce Williams,  the Osborne’s nearest  neighbour.   She was 73 and had the vivacity of a girl from the Welsh valleys; sparky, quick and direct with the kind of look that can see straight through you.   Her hair was sparse and dry and dyed the colour of winter hay.  She was close to Helen Osborne, particularly after John died.  There was a bond.  Joyce had lost her husband at about the same time.  Her son, Andy, was the Osborne’s general handyman.  He lived up at The Hurst and still does. 

I asked Joyce what she thought of the Osbornes when she first met them. 

‘They were different, weren’t they?  The previous owners had been landed gentry. We knew our place, but they were boring.  The Osbornes were more down to earth, but they brought some excitement to the valley’.

She looked inward and smiled.  ‘I remember when we first met them.  They had only been there a day. We were summoned to the house for drinks.  We were nervous.  I told Roy to wear a suit.  Helen came to the door.  She was small – petite, I suppose you’d call her – and feisty.  John stood like a bearded giant behind her.  She gave no introductions, just waded straight in,  ‘Now what are we going to do about this fucking roof.’   Roy nearly dropped through the floor!’ 

I asked her how John and Helen got on.  She paused, looked directly at me; then wiping away some moisture from the side of her right eye, said,  ‘Helen was devoted to John.  There was never any other man for her.  You must have heard the story.  She won first prize in a writing competition when she was still at school.  John had presented her with a copy of ‘Look Back in Anger,’  in which he had inscribed,  ‘To Helen, with great expectation.  With love, John.   God, he was such a handsome man back then.  No wonder she fell for him.  Twenty years later, when they were married,  Helen returned the gift, in which she had added.  ‘I always expected it would be you.’

‘But John could be difficult’, she added, looking at me, assessing whether it was safe to continue. ‘He could be so charming and cheerful at times.  Andy would tell me how on sunny mornings he would hear this roaring from the woods and there was Joan, striding down the hill like King Lear, the dogs snuffling and slavering behind him, the earphones from his walkman jammed into his ears, while he sang an aria from Don Giovanni at the top of his voice.  But then he could fall into a depression and you wouldn’t see him for weeks.’ 

But perhaps he had no choice. John Osborne was the Pete Docherty of his day.  Much  further out on the left field than others dared to go and with a dangerous intelligence, he terrified politicians and unsettled the rest of us. Look Back in Anger was not so much a watershed, it was a techtonic shift, an earthquake that shattered the polite cleverness of Noel Coward, the cosy mysteries of Terence Rattigan. Osborne was visceral. He had guts.  He was quite prepared to evacuate all the shit that threatened to poison his mind and dump it on the complacency of post war Britain. He was the inventor of kitchen drama.  If the action wasn’t in the sink, it was around the ironing board.

For a decade, he surfed the tidal wave that he alone had created.  He wrote other plays that enacted the painful aspects of his life with the same disturbing realism.  Hotel in Amsterdam worked in all the violence, the shocking aggression of the break up of his fourth marriage with the actor Jill Bennett. The Entertainer describes in harrowing detail the decline of celebrity.  As John Heilpern commented in his 2006 biography.  An undertow of melancholy seeps through all of Osborne’s plays.  It’s about growing older and the sting of the bitch goddess of success.’

But just ten years after he elbowed his way into the gentleman’s club of British theatre by the tradesman’s entrance, he exited via the revolving door. He wrote no  plays of note after 1965. The endless rumination on the dark side of his own celebrity had ceased to have relevance for his audience.   

By 1980, Osborne’s career was in terminal decline.  ‘I want simple, familiar English comforts’, he wrote to a friend.  Six years later they bought the Hurst on an impulse. They were already in debt and could not afford it, but that never stopped John.  They continued to entertain their theatre friends on a lavish scale, celebrities like Maggie Smith, Peter Bowles, Edward Fox, Anthony Howard, Sylvia Sims, Dirk Bogard and Peter Nichols,  author of The Diary of Joe Egg were frequent visitors.  Joyce remembers how John would sit on the couch just inside the drawing room, the door propped open with one of his Oscars.  ‘He would throw his arms wide and greet his guests in turn as if they were his children just returned from years in the wilderness and then after a few well chosen words send them back into exile with a dismissive wave of his hand and beckon in the next.   It was a skilful performance.  You couldn’t take offence.  But when he’d met everybody, he would rise and go upstairs to his study and not come down again for the rest of the evening.’

While Osborne could affect an arrogance the size of the millennium dome, his writings revealed a devastating self loathing.  It was as if all the anger of his youth had now turned in on itself and was destroying him.  Company of friends could lift him for a while, but there were times when he refused to get out of bed.  When that happened, Sue Mercer, their housekeeper, who now works in the gift shop in Clun, remembers Helen rolling her eyes and saying, ‘Don’t go into the bedroom today, Sue,  John’s having one of his days.’ In 1993, he refused to leave the refuge of their king-size bed  from Christmas until Easter.  

John Osborne was a devil-may-care diabetic. He would forget to take his Insulin or he would take too much and then not eat.  And he absolutely refused to curb his drinking.  More than once, Helene had woken to find him not breathing properly and had saved his life by forcing him to take sugar.  ‘It was so hard on Helen.’  Joyce commented,  ‘He could be so awkward.  When he was depressed and that was quite often, he’d refuse to see the doctor. It was almost as if he wanted to die.’  

Joyce explained that Helen did everything around the house. ‘She organised the repairs, paid the bills, employed the staff and she did all the cooking. Helen’s shepherds pie was to die for, but she refused to cater for guests who were vegetarian. – too much trouble!’    

Helen built her life around John. She was the jealous custodian of the Osborne reputation, maintaining the myth of the angry young man in the face of overwhelming reality. Numero cinque was his secretary, typist, proof reader, and even his writer.  He could do nothing without her, but did he love her?  Joyce pursed her lips and looked through the window.  ‘Who knows? I am sure that when he wasn’t depressed, he found contentment with her. They were inseparable.  And they had so much fun together. The called each other names.  She was ducky; he piggy!  They loved dressing up and entertaining or going to the races. And they both had such a finely developed sense of the ridiculous, even when things were sad and painful.’  

According to Heilpern. when John Osborne died on Christmas eve, 1994, the village undertaker, Ron the Box, lost his body somewhere between the house and the mortuary. The poor man was so scared that Helen would be devastated. Quite the opposite. When he summoned up the courage to admit his carelessness, she clapped her hands and cried.  ‘Wonderful.  John would have loved that.’     

When reports came out a year or so ago of the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott’s affair with his secretary, I could not imagine how someone so corpulent, rough, and irascible  could ever be considered sexy.  I’ve changed my mind. Jean-Louis Coulloc’h, the actor who played Parkin, le guard du chasse, in Pascale Ferran’s ‘Lady Chatterley’, pulls it off!  

Who can forget the scene,  straight out of Edwardian peep show, of his short stocky body running naked in the rain, arms outstretched, lips vibrating, as he chases the screaming Connie through the woods?   But is this just a frivolous comic interlude in Parkin’s taciturn reflections?  Not at all!  Ferran cuts through the ridiculous to get to the careless joy of two people, who find freedom in their love for each other.  Marina Hands, who plays Connie has a beautiful body, Coulloc’h less so, but it doesn’t matter. 

Only a French director could have the insight to portray the sexual tension without recourse to titillation.  The lingering shots of Connie’s thighs, embellished with dark spots, as Parkin first unclips, then rolls her stockings down, or the way he decorates her pubic hair, umbilicus and breasts with flowers,  are deeply erotic without being pornographic.  Even the clumsy, grunting scenes of copulation are beautiful in the genre of a wildlife documentary.  I could let my mind slip and imagine David Attenborough’s breathless voice-over. 

Lawrence’s story is familiar.  It is 1921.  The war to end all wars is over.  The survivors or what remains of them have returned home.  Sir Clifford Chatterley is paralysed from the waist down.  Constance mourns the death of their marriage.  Trapped by a sense of obligation, she whiles away her days.  Her walks in the forest bring her into contact with l’homme des bois, Parkin, a sensitive, gruff kind of bloke, who leads a life a self imposed solitude after a devastating marriage.  Their relationship begins awkwardly, but the sensual awakening that they both experience instigates their journey back to life. 

The film is a French take on a very English story.  Wragby Hall and its cottages are more Lorraine than Nottinghamshire, the East Midlands accents are replaced by subtitles and the obligatory commentary in the final scene has a softly detached dream-like quality.  But none of this matters; the exquisite photography of the woodland trees, flowers, bird and animals set the tenderness of the love scenes.  As depiction of the restorative powers of love and nature, about life after psychic death, it works.   

And if it helps us see our hapless ex-Deputy Prime Minister as less the clown and more the sensuous lover, well, I guess he would also chuckle at that.