Biscuits and coffee, but the angry young man is absent

John Osborne

August 25, 2006

Very strong temperament, very weak character," Penelope Gilliatt said of her ex-husband John Osborne. It is one of the few clear statements in John Heilpern's John Osborne: A Patriot for Us , a confused and incoherent biography short on insight and high on gossip. Although Heilpern says that his work was "authorised" by Osborne's estate, which gave him access to hitherto unpublished diaries and notebooks, there is little sense of what this remarkable playwright was like as a man.

Besides anything else, Heilpern is incapable of writing or thinking in anything other than journalese. The book's title is a typically empty formulation. Look Back in Anger was apparently "a watershed achievement", Osborne "had a lot on his plate", Kingsley Amis is "a middle-aged geezer", Mary Ure was "delicate as a china doll" and so forth. Worse still, Heilpern is one of those biographers who thinks that his pursuit of Osborne is more compelling than the life itself.

In fact, the entire thing is modelled on Citizen Kane , with Heilpern in the role of myopic journalist. Combined with a Pooterish lack of self-awareness, this makes for occasional moments of unintended amusement. When he arrives at Osborne's house, "two slobbering chocolate labradors flattened me against the front door" (an incident straight out of Diary of a Nobody ). When discussing Osborne's GP, Heilpern says: "I ought to declare here that he was coincidentally my GP during this period" and, describing his encounter with Doris Lessing, he reveals that "we spoke over coffee and digestive biscuits at her London home" (it's the digestives that make this funny).

The pedestrian nature of Heilpern's observations is a constant drag. He tries to compensate by playing the part of tail-wagging host, coarsening his material in the process: Osborne was "weaned on reproach and failure"; he waged a "reign of terror" at school; while writing Look Back in Anger he "was on a roll, riffing jazzily in his overheated solo"; Brighton "smells of sea, sex and cockles"; "Barbara Skelton was known as the love of famous fatties".

If this does not irritate you, the name-dropping will. Heilpern, we learn, met Michael Foot in the offices of Tribune , and in the course of research collared Melvyn Bragg, Harold Pinter and David Hare. He also "knew Osborne slightly". None of which helps.

The throng of informants cited cannot redeem the author from an unerring talent for the trite and the bland. He characterises postwar Britain by reference to rationing, capital punishment and the illegality of abortion; and when discussing Look Back in Anger (or Look Back , as he calls it), Heilpern says it "exaggerated and distilled reality".

Sadly, he has little light of any kind to shed on the plays. The Entertainer , we learn, reflects Osborne's love of music-hall. Ho-hum. In this spirit, Heilpern devotes a chapter to the class system, in which everyone is characterised by their origins - Pinter was the "son of a Hackney tailor", Robert Stephens the "son of a docker", Kenneth Tynan "the illegitimate son of a laundress and Birmingham businessman" - but without doing more than reiterate the point he makes on page 179: "The country was polarised by the class system" (not true). What really makes this book a chore is Heilpern's digressive manner: much of what ought to be biographical narrative is related tangentially through extended prattle on other topics - the Lord Chamberlain, homosexuality in the theatre, politics on stage and so on.

If Heilpern has little to offer anyone with a serious interest in some of the finest theatre writing of the past century, his book might arguably be of use to those with a prurient interest in Osborne's personal life. The essential myth is that of a man who had it all and flushed it unhesitatingly down the toilet. "You've fucked your life up, haven't you?"

Gilliatt once said to him. She was right. Heilpern says little more than that, repeatedly, lacking any other than psychological and emotional insights of the most rudimentary kind.

Osborne, we are told, had an "anguished soul" and "dreaded loss". As a result it is never clear exactly why he disowned his daughter Nolan, nor why he made the self-destructive decision to leave Gilliatt for Jill Bennett, who proceeded to destroy him both as an artist and a man. George Devine, who we are repeatedly told was a "father figure" to him, is a cardboard cutout. What makes this all the more deplorable is that, as Heilpern insists, he pursued his subject through the archives not just of the Osborne estate but the Harry Ransom Centre for Research in the Humanities at the University of Texas at Austin and even the Westminster Record Office. Travel does not always broaden the mind.

Heilpern quotes some pitiful letters sent by Gilliatt to Osborne at the time of their break-up, but without being able to say anything meaningful about their context. A gifted writer and fine journalist, Gilliatt (if not Osborne) deserves better than this.

What are the achievements of this book? Heilpern "proves" that Osborne was not gay, that he loved his mother despite what he said about her in his autobiography and that the sense of loss that accompanied him through life derived from the death of his sister shortly after his birth - a "discovery" Heilpern keeps until the end of the volume in order to give him his "Rosebud" moment.

These insights count for little in the present context because of Heilpern's failure to conceptualise his subject in more than two dimensions. The blurb says that his book "is an essential, unorthodox, moving and extraordinary [sic] frank portrait of the man, the playwright and his era". Would that it were. For frankness and intelligence (not to mention literary quality), you are better off with A Better Class of Person and Almost a Gentleman , Osborne's autobiographies.

Duncan Wu is professor of English language and literature, Oxford University.

John Osborne: A Patriot for Us

Author - John Heilpern
Publisher - Chatto and Windus
Pages - 528
Price - £25.00
ISBN - 0 7011 6780 7

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