by Francis Beckett

‘Beckett’s Olivier is a great talent, but also a monster of egotism who undermined all who came into contact with him. The tragedy of Viven Leigh, it is implied, is to be laid squarely at his door. Beckett sticks the knife in at every opportunity, but does it so elegantly that one can quite forgive him.’
The Tablet

In the 1930s he established himself as a wide-ranging Shakespearean actor. His marriage in 1940 to Vivien Leigh (his second wife) seemed to complete the image of the romantic star. From the mid-40s he excelled in directing himself in Shakespeare on film, such as his dramatically-shot Henry V (1944), with its timely excesses of patriotism. When the new wave of British drama began in the late 1950s, Olivier was immediately part of it. As an actor of such wide range, and a successful producer and director, Olivier was a natural choice to bring the National Theatre into existence in 1963. Together with his new wife Joan Plowright (they had married in 1961), he built up a brilliant company and repertoire at the Old Vic. Olivier became the first actor to be given a peerage.

FRANCIS BECKETT is a journalist, author and contemporary historian, writing mainly about education, politics and society for several national newspapers. Olivier will be a departure, yet someone he always wanted to write about and he feels passionate about.

Find Francis on Twitter @francisbeckett

Also by this author, Clem Attlee: Labour’s Great Reformer.

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