The Dresser Undressed

The delicate process of writing the biography of a wary Sir Ronald Harwood


This article is taken from the December/January 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Theatre people sometimes ask why the late Sir Ronald Harwood allowed me — a specialist in Victorian rogues — to write his biography. I have to admit they have a point. 

Before meeting him in January 2014, I had never seen one of his plays, nor had I even watched the 1981 film adaptation of his most celebrated work, The Dresser, starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay. Practically my only first hand knowledge of his prolific output was The Pianist, which won him an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay in 2003. Justly deserved, then, was his brusque reply to my warm words of greeting — he said I was a “damned fool”. 

Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay in Peter Yates’s film of The Dresser

Had I not also read a few pages of Lady Elizabeth Longford’s two volume biography of the Duke of Wellington, I think all would have been lost. A mumbled reference to this book, however, transformed the irritable, elderly playwright into a far more approachable figure. Before I had even sat down, he recounted how the aged duke used the same words to dismiss an obsequious stranger who, having helped him across the road, said what an honour it was to have assisted the victor of Waterloo. Suddenly I felt welcome; we had shared our first joke. Only now do I wonder whether it was at his expense or mine.

I did not use this anecdote in my biography of Ronnie Harwood. But I think it reveals a great deal about both himself and the nature of biography. Like his friend, Harold Pinter, the South African born playwright initially wanted to be an actor — the two men had been members of Sir Donald Wolfit’s theatre company in the 1950s — and life was, for Harwood, rather like playing a series of roles. 

His breakthrough as a dramatist came in 1977 with an adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s novel, The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold, and the choice is revealing. Waugh’s protagonist is a chameleon figure who disguises his true personality by casting himself as something between an “eccentric don and [a] testy colonel”. 

The same could be said of Harwood. Depending on circumstances, his habitually sunny demeanour could be eclipsed by a rather darker mood. Meeting his prospective biographer, understandably, put him on his guard.

It occasionally crossed my mind that Ronnie was hiding something

Biography tends to be a battle between subject and author. If either is too dominant, there is diminishment; the book will become a panegyric or a dissertation. That Ronnie was aware of this is clear from the two biographies he wrote of his mentor, Wolfit: first, the 1971 “authorised biography”, Sir Donald Wolfit: His Life and Work in The Unfashionable Theatre, and then, nine years later, the stage version, The Dresser, based on his experiences looking after the veteran actor behind the scenes. 

What made the latter work especially poignant was the way in which Harwood revealed Wolfit to have been both a large and a small man. The idea of me doing something similar to him — however unlikely — must have crossed his mind. 

Ronnie winced at all my suggested titles (especially “A Knight in Hollywood”) — and the one agreed in the end with my publisher was no exception. Why? I might have asked. Because Speak Well of Me is too flattering? Because it makes Harwood appear pathetically insecure and needy? I suspect there was another reason. As only he, I and a handful of theatre aficionados could have known, the line comes from two separate scenes in The Dresser. 

It is first deployed by the Wolfit character: he wants his devoted but maltreated dresser, Norman — aka Harwood — to remember him with affection after his life’s final act. When the line next appears, it is when Norman looks down at his master’s mortal remains and spits: “Speak well of that old sod? I wouldn’t give him a good character, not in a court of law. Ungrateful bastard.” That, I think, is why Ronnie was — again, quite understandably — not too thrilled by my idea.

Shortly after our brief initial meeting, Ronnie emailed me the draft of an abandoned autobiography — he said he could not face going on with it (“I never look back,” was a line I would hear him use more than once). What was interesting about this document was how much it skipped over. The opening chapter was all about his trip to Buckingham Palace to receive his knighthood in 2011. Though hardly dull, this cameo meant little without the backstory. As I would quickly learn, the real Ronnie Harwood was far more interesting than the stuffy “establishment playwright” role he seemed to revel in. 

The third child of a commercial traveller, Ike, and his middle aged wife, Bella, he was born Ronald Horwitz, in Cape Town, on 9 November 1934. The family lived on the ground floor of a dilapidated maisonette in Sea Point, then a rather rundown suburb. In this cramped and unhappy abode, Ronnie served as a human carrier pigeon, delivering messages between parents who refused to speak to one another. When Bella banished her husband from the marital bed, the latter bunked down with their youngest in a makeshift bedroom that had originally been a veranda.

During our conversations, I often asked Ronnie about these early years, but I sensed his irritation. In so many words, he suggested that everything before his arrival in England in 1951 — when he was called for an interview at RADA — was mere irrelevance. It was at this time, after all, that he anglicised his name; a suggestion put to him by a well meaning teacher at his school, Sea Point Boys High. But this was an exaggeration. Without his mother’s efforts, he would never have benefited from the small luxuries, including elocution lessons and a subscription to Theatre World, which set him on his way. 

His father, too, deserved greater recognition. Ronnie often implied that Ike was simply a failure, both as a husband and
a parent. But when I dug a
little deeper, including into Ronnie’s own writings, it became clear that this was not the whole story. 

As a boy in Lithuania, Ike had once escaped from a pogrom by hiding inside a coffin. After emigrating to Cape Town and marrying, he broke with other members of his family by joining the synagogue of an American rabbi called Dr David Sherman. It was he who showed young Ronnie the newsreels of the liberated Nazi death camps, sparking his fascination with the Holocaust. For this alone, Ike deserved a degree of reflected glory.

 It was his marriage that gave him the security he needed to become a professional writer

Brushing away potential influences, familial or otherwise, was quite typical of Ronnie. He said that people exaggerated his debt to Wolfit, and even the story of how he came to work for the veteran actor in 1953 cut out several important people. In Ronnie’s version, it was not so much the assistance of a kindly theatre critic — the partner of his first contact in London — but his decision to telephone the actor at home which secured his most important role. This was disingenuous; for one thing, who suggested he try Wolfit in the first place? But it all fitted a pattern.

A whiff of ingratitude clings to much of Ronnie’s early history. Wolfit’s family famously broke off communications after The Dresser — the actor’s widow said the play was a “wicked” betrayal. Others, too, felt themselves to have been snubbed or simply forgotten. Several of these characters were publishers and directors from his early days, but many were social acquaintances who had evidently “opened doors” for him when a struggling young actor. 

It crossed my mind occasionally that Ronnie was hiding something. His relentless emphasis on his own role in forging his career was an easy way to avoid awkward questions. One such query concerned his sexuality. 

Seeing that so many of his early patrons were homosexual — criminal under English law until 1967 — I wondered if he had been drawn into that world. No matter how much he boasted of his early romances with actresses, there seemed to be a surprising number of bankers and baronets also in the picture. “I do not now remember how I managed to pay my rent,” was the sort of vague statement that only fed my curiosity. 

None of this is meant as criticism. Simply to have survived his years of penury — let alone actually to “make it” — was a remarkable achievement, and I suspect that Ronnie sometimes did things he found objectionable to achieve his ends. 

Occasionally he would enquire into my life in a way suggestive of his own past. I remember once mentioning that I knew a young lady connected to a famous banking dynasty. “Marry her,” was his instant response — “you can then write to your heart’s content.” When I pointed out that the bank had collapsed some years previously, he suggested that maybe it would not be such a good idea after all.

I would guess that a similar rationale lay behind Ronnie’s marriage, in 1959, to Natasha Riehle — “the only scion of Russian nobility working in the theatre at the time,” as Gyles Brandreth has said. She certainly helped a great deal, not least in providing him with a permanent home: a small flat in Barnes, West London, purchased with the assistance of her parents.

Ronnie’s father in law bought him the typewriter on which he wrote his first published work 

Still more importantly, Ronnie’s father in law bought him the typewriter on which he wrote his first published work. This is not to deny that he fell deeply and passionately in love with Natasha; it is simply that he was dependent on her in more ways than one. If I cannot quite believe his claim that they only ever had one row — “about a pasta sauce” — it was his marriage, more than anything, that gave him the security and stability he needed to become a professional writer. 

Ronnie would have abhorred these speculations — he loathed “analysis” and never cared to dwell on anything even remotely painful. I did my best to accommodate this sentiment in the finished biography — for instance, passing lightly over his wife’s death in 2013. But it would have been a dereliction of my duty not to push him a little on some of the more controversial aspects of his life and career. 

One of these uncomfortable topics concerned the apartheid system. Ronnie’s debut novel, All the Same Shadows (1960), was an impassioned attack upon the racial code introduced by South Africa’s government in 1949; but, as he freely conceded, his disgust was entirely retrospective. So far as he had, in his youth, even considered such matters, it was simply to echo his father’s revealing comment: “Thank God it’s not us!” 

Only in later life did Harwood begin to tabulate the small acts and omissions that made him culpable, including his decision not to kiss farewell to the family’s devoted black maid, Annie, on his departure for England. This sense of guilt underscored many of his mature works, notably his 1995 play, Taking Sides, about Hitler’s favourite conductor, Dr Wilhelm Furtwängler, the well meaning but morally feeble director of the Berlin Philharmonic during the war. 

Another difficult subject was Ronnie’s collaboration, on The Pianist and Oliver Twist, with Roman Polanski. Wasn’t agreeing to work with a convicted sex offender as ethically dubious as Furtwängler’s expedient political compromises? Rightly — or not — Ronnie saw my comparison as crass. “What do you expect me to say?” he said, “He’s my friend. I’m biased.” 

Likewise, he was unapologetic in his renunciation of many shibboleths of the modern theatre: from gender blind casting to the entire concept of state subsidised drama. While I often found myself disagreeing with his opinions, I could not help admiring the resolute way he stood by them.

I doubt there was any particular reason Ronnie Harwood allowed me to write his biography. Nor do I think he was especially bothered about how “good” such a work might have been. It was enough that I was on hand at the right moment; enough that I was eager to put his name once more before a forgetful public. Only when the book was first published in 2017 did he offer me any sort of judgement: “I have flicked through it,” he wrote, “and, as Ravel once said about someone else’s work, ‘there’s nothing to regret!’” That, I think, is as much gratitude as any biographer could wish for. 

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