Book review: A Spectacle of Dust: The Autobiography by Pete Postlethwaite

A Spectacle of Dust: The Autobiography By Pete PostlethwaiteWeidenfeld & Nicholson, 288pp, £20

IN his autobiography, the late Pete Postlethwaite recalls attempts to describe his distinctive face. One critic said he looked like he had a clavicle stuck in his mouth, another that he resembled an unmade bed. An acting tutor, who waives his fees at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School, remarks on his "face like a f**king stone archway".

It's characteristic of the Warrington-born performer's humility that he dwells on these slights while brushing off Steven Spielberg's remark that he was the best actor in the world; what the director really meant, he jokes, was that "Pete thinks he's the best actor in the world".

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Not a bit of it. What emerges from the book is its author's reverence for the craft of acting, from the moment he visits Liverpool's Everyman theatre in the early Sixties. Following a poor-but-happy Catholic upbringing, Postlethwaite goes from seminary to repertory (Bristol Old Vic, Everyman, RSC).

He lives with Julie Walters for six years but their separation coincides with her overnight success on stage in Educating Rita. "I'm the slow-burn," Postlethwaite reflects in comparison, "rather than the dazzling pyrotechnic."

He's drily affectionate toward other actors, including Bob Hoskins, who "(never] quite saw the point of iambic pentameter".

Cinema embraces Postlethwaite after a devastating performance as the brutal patriarch in Distant Voices, Still Lives. The actor is reunited with his old friend Daniel Day-Lewis ("Dan Day") in Guildford Four drama In the Name of the Father, which earns him an Oscar nomination.

The studio wanted Michael Caine or Sean Connery to play the proud father jailed alongside his son, but Postlethwaite, who had campaigned against the imprisonment of the Guildford Four, said he needed the role more, and proved it by staying in character for a three-and-a-half-hour meeting with the director.

The opening analysis of how his 2008 King Lear at the Everyman went awry serves notice that luvvie gushing will be thin on the ground. One of the understandable distractions in that production came from Postlethwaite's discovery during rehearsals that he had cancer.

Indeed, the most memorable thing about A Spectacle of Dust is its poignant sense of time running out, as its author becomes all too aware that "the shadows are lengthening". The closing chapter is deeply wrenching, with Postlethwaite distributing the last of his love, time and energy among the family and friends who surround him: "It's like being backstage on the last night of a successful play."

He may be gone now but the audience's applause has yet to subside.

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