Sheridan Morley (1941-2007) was a critic, essayist, director, raconteur, the son of great character actor and playwright (Edward, My Son) Robert Morley and dedicated biographer-Noel Coward and John Gielgud, among his celebrated subjects.
He often collaborated with his wife, Ruth Leon. Whether they were writing together or separately, their south-of-the-Thames home was a small book factory-volume upon volume issued from it annually. That’s not mentioning the daily theater reviews they constantly supplied various local newspapers and magazines.
When Morley died six years ago, Leon wanted to do something in his honor that would also keep his name alive. Not taking much time to mull the possibilities, she decided the ideal thing was to establish The Sheridan Morley Prize for Theatre Biography. (Incidentally, I knew Sheridan only slightly but have become better acquainted with Ruth, not the least impressed by her tirelessly dedicated current work on Sheridan’s behalf.)
The Sheridan Morley winner is announced every February after a panel of three (Leon supervising but not voting) settle on their favorite among a short-listed group. (Anywhere from three to this year’s six are included). To date and in chronological order, the winners are: Dominic Dromgoole’s Will and Me: How Shakespeare Took Over My Life (2007), Michael Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History (2008), Andrew McConnell Stott’s The Pantomime Life of Joseph Grimaldi, (2009), Simon Callow’s My Life in Pieces (2010), Stephen Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat (2011) and this years award nabber, Rupert Everett’s Vanished Years-all books currently available through amazon.com.
Morley was a member of the city’s north-of-Thames Garrick Club, and, although women are not invited to join, Leon throws the late-morning award ceremony there under the club’s auspices as well as the auspices of theater-book publishing house Oberon Books. In a wood-paneled ground-floor room with past members peering down from paintings, authors, judges, publishers and friends-greeted enthusiastically by Leon and Oberon’s James Hogan-rub elbows and swap the latest news and gossip.
I know this not from press releases but because I’ve now been to two of the events-two years back for the Callow win (what an outstanding book about his life and writings it is!)-and this year’s Everett citing. The selection occurred, by the way, only a few short weeks after Everett received the Whatsonstage best actor nod for his superb Oscar Wilde in the revival of David Hare’s play, The Judas Kiss.
Looking considerably slimmer than he does in a role calling for a fat (well, girth) suit, Everett expressed surprise-not an unusual winner’s response-and didn’t speak for long. As a matter of fact, his words were fewer than most of those spoken by the judges and authors who’d already talked about all the books in competition: among them, Michael Pennington’s Sweet William, Simon Callow’s Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World and the late Arthur Laurent’s The Rest of the Story.
It’s worth noticing that of the six authors tapped, three are men known primarily as actors. What is it with English actors, male and female? So many-like Antony Sher, for only one example-write as well as they perform, and that’s pretty damn good. Among the best of them, Callow did plan a journalism career, but others seem to come to writing as if to the manner born.
(In contrast, try putting a list together of American actors who write regularly or even occasionally. You might want to start with Ethan Hawke, who’s produced two novels so far, and there’s Fannie Flagg, who did some acting early in her career. Who else? Feel free to post overlooked names in the comments.)
Speaking of Everett-who’s written a previous memoir, Red Carpets and Other Banana Skins, and two novels, Hello Darling, Are You Working? and The Hairdressers of St Tropez-he needs bow to no one for the beauty of his words. One succinct sentence that goes to the heart of his poetic abilities is this of time spent in Germany: “Berlin lives under a vast unshed tear.”
Beat that for accurately summoning up the reality of a complex town. Descriptions of comparable quality infuse the book from the prologue-which takes place in Ocho Rios, Jamaica, and covers an encounter he has with a past-her-lovely-prime Anita Pallenberg-through to the final chapter, which also unfolds in Jamaica and, specifically, in Noel Coward’s retreat, Firefly.
(Whether Everett intends the setting as his asking consciously or un- to be thought of alongside Coward remains undetermined. He does take the title of the book from a little-known Coward poem.)
The vanished years Everett reclaims in the volume (Little Brown, 325 pp., illustrations) unfold mostly but not necessarily chronologically after he writes amusingly-a talent to amuse being one of his many strengths-about his being dismissed from Hollywood and from his dream of becoming the new Montgomery Clift.
Possibly American readers-especially the New York theater crowd-will be intrigued by the reporting on his last local appearance in, fittingly enough, Coward’s Blithe Spirit and in the part originally played by Coward. Everett doesn’t have much to say in favor of the production or his contribution to it. Although he seems to have enjoyed working with leading ladies Christine Ebersole and Jayne Atkinson, he refers to them only by first name. Not so Angela Lansbury, about whom he’s slightly less gushy than others usually are.
Full of anecdotes and laugh lines, Everett doesn’t restrict himself to them. A trip to Cambodia in one of his many forays as a Global Fund ambassador is one section where he leaves light-heartedness behind and becomes deadly serious about the killing fields.
He opens the chapter this way, “It is five o’clock in the morning deep in the Cambodian jungle. A twelfth-century temple called Bayon with fifty-four towers looms black against a purple sky. A full watery moon glides through space above us, outlining the vast temple in silver and throwing long shadows from the forest onto the clearing upon which it stands.”
This kind of moon-lit prose isn’t necessarily how he’s expressed himself when having a go at television and a sitcom idea of his that reached the pilot stage-with a shocked Derek Jacobi at his side-but got no farther, thanks to the network people involved and his own deficiencies at the assignment.
If Everett has harsh words for anyone, he often reserves the harshest for his own behavior and problems-drugs, for one and failed relationships, for another. The gorgeously relayed candor makes Everett’s Vanished Years a richly deserved Sheridan Morley Prize for Literary Biography winner, and the award itself worth knowing about and following.