Head of the angry brigade
by John Heilpern
Chatto & Windus, 485pp, 20
BY ANY STANDARD, THE LIFE story of John Osborne - actor, playwright and sometime angry young man - is an enthralling tale, full of love and hatred, passion and romance, glittering success, wild extravagance, and final tragedy. Born in Fulham in 1929, to a sharp-tongued barmaid called Nellie Beatrice Osborne and her ailing copywriter husband Thomas, Osborne lost a sister to tuberculosis when he was only months old, and his father to the same disease when he was ten; Osborne himself suffered chronic ill health throughout his schooldays.
Yet he emerged from this grief-stricken childhood not as a broken man, but as a seething powerhouse of energy and rage, scarred by a much-publicised loathing for his insensitive mother, by longing for his beloved lost father, and by a general disdain both for the pinched lower middle class in which he had grown up and for the British establishment and upper classes who kept his sort in their place. When he was 15 he was expelled from the minor public school to which he had been sent as a charity case, for punching the headmaster. When he was 18 he ran away from his unglamorous job as a junior reporter on a Fleet Street trade journal - and from his first fiance - to become an actor with a repertory theatre company. When he was 21 he embarked on the first of his five marriages, four of them glamorous disasters involving the actresses Pamela Lane, Mary Ure and Jill Bennett, and the critic Penelope Gilliatt. And before his 27th birthday, in 1956, he had become the most talked-about British playwright of the age, when his largely autobiographical play Look Back in Anger - about a malcontented contemporary British anti-hero called Jimmy Porter, his rage against the stuffy postwar society, and his savage relationship with his genteel wife Alison - opened at the Royal Court Theatre. It rapidly became the symbol of a new age and voice in British theatre and politics.
For the next decade, Osborne lived what outwardly seemed a golden life, writing several more successful plays - including The Entertainer, Inadmissible Evidence and A Patriot For Me - and the screenplay for the film of Tom Jones. He amassed a fortune running into tens of millions of pounds and lived in astonishing style in London and the country.
But with the sudden death in 1966 of his great artistic patron and father-figure, George Devine of the Royal Court, Osborne's life began to unravel. He left Gilliatt, his third wife, and began a lacerating ten-year relationship with Bennett, a marriage that quickly deteriorated into a nightmare of public rows, sexual humiliation, and chronic alcohol abuse. By the 1970s Osborne's flow of new plays was drying up. By the 1980s he had run out of money and health, and sunk - in his public utterances, at least - into a mood of petulant resentment over his declining artistic fortunes that spilled into nostalgic political invective, and made him seem ever more like a reactionary old bore. And in 1994, soon after his 65th birthday, he died in hospital near his last home in Clun, Shropshire, outwardly still in a rage, but privately sustained by the glowing happiness of his final marriage, in 1978, to journalist Helen Dawson.
So now, with this tremendous story to tell, here comes Osborne's authorised biographer, the critic and theatre writer John Heilpern; and a strange, interesting, infuriating, often inelegant, but finally irresistible job he makes of it. In following previous biographers of Osborne - and the man himself, who published two typically controversial volumes of autobiography - Heilpern has had two major advantages. First, he has been able to interview, and often read the correspondence of, dozens of friends, colleagues, lovers and relations of Osborne who might not have spoken so freely while the man was still alive. He also extracts from Osborne's early friend and co-writer Anthony Creighton an admission that, contrary to what he told the press immediately after Osborne's death, Osborne never had a homosexual relationship, with Creighton or anyone else.
And secondly, Osborne's widow, Helen, gave access to Osborne's notebooks, a lifelong chronicle of the playwright's darkest moments - he never wrote in them when he was busy and happy - that reveals the profound sense of loss and terror that shaped his inner life following his traumatic childhood, and the terrifying cycles of black depression and despair he suffered.
What Heilpern has done with this material, though - and with one small but significant discovery he makes about Osborne's family - is not to use it, in conventional biographical style, to shape a new, well-rounded analytical narrative of Osborne's life. Instead, he offers a gossipy, informal, distinctly postmodern text, with plenty of use of the first person, that often reads more like the meta-story of Heilpern's adventures in researching the biography, than the biography itself. The structure is broadly chronological; but Heilpern moves between conventional narrative, themed chapters and chatty asides with a freedom that can be as irritating as it is thought-provoking. His approach is sometimes downright novelettish in its quest for catchy juxtapositions or artificial suspense; Heilpern's family revelation, for example, is kept for the final pages of the book, even though it clearly belongs, for maximum illumination of Osborne's character, to childhood chapters.
The result is a long, playful and slightly rambling book, guaranteed to make some readers itch to reach for the red pencil. But in the end, Heilpern succeeds in doing what any biographer of Osborne must do. He creates an unforgettable and richly detailed portrait of a man who could be obnoxious, childish, self-indulgent and breathtakingly cruel - not least to his only child, his daughter Nolan, whom he threw out of his house at the age of 17 for some pretty ordinary teenage misdemeanours, and never saw again; but who was also so full of wit, charm, warmth, and generosity, on most occasions, that his many friends and admirers continued to find him irresistible.
Osborne, Heilpern suggests, was a man haunted by savage demons of dread and insecurity that he had carried with him since birth, and that often drove him towards a kind of self-destruction, physical, emotional and professional. He was a profoundly instinctive man, rather than an intellectual; a rebel against received opinion of every kind, and a thoroughly emotional thinker whose undisciplined impulses perhaps told us more than it was comfortable to know about the negative mood of England in the late 20th century, caught between the radical self-disgust of Jimmy Porter, and a fierce longing for what England might once have been.
And finally - in a slightly un-British way - Osborne was a gloriously articulate man, driven to express in mighty rivers of words the huge emotions and profound griefs that many of his tongue-tied compatriots could not bring themselves to speak. Often in his plays, and in his public and personal life, he wrote too much and too violently, damaging his reputation. But, on half a dozen glorious occasions during the 1950s and 1960s, something in the zeitgeist - and in the creative group around him - let Osborne shape his passionate eloquence, anger and pain into theatrical art. At those moments he spoke bravely and magnificently for his generation, for his nation, and - at times - for the whole of raging, unsatisfied humanity. That is why he is remembered; and in the end, the rest of the story - some of it ugly, some of it fine - will fall away, leaving the work to speak for itself.