Newsnight’s Jeremy Paxman interviews Sir John Gielgud at 95, on the stage of the Old Vic Theatre in December 1999.
Here is a transcript of the interview.
John Gielgud was one of the finest actors of his generation, and the Gielgud Theatre in London is named after him.
Transcript of an interview with Sir John Gielgud
JEREMY PAXMAN [Introduction]: Considered by many to be the finest actor of the age, his honeyed voice has interpreted most of the big roles in Shakespeare, as well as adorning some pretty cheesy movies. SIR JOHN GIELGUD is now 95, and although physically increasingly frail, still mentally quite alert. We arranged to meet on the stage of the Old Vic Theatre in London for the first of Newsnight’s End of the Year Interviews.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Sir John Gielgud, you made your stage debut here at the old Vic nearly 80 years ago. What’s it like coming back?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Well, it’s nice to see it restored to its pristine beauty. When I joined the company, I was a walk-on, un-paid, and it was very shabby and really smelly. But it had a kind of atmosphere even then.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Do you miss the theatre?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Yes, I do miss it. I miss the companionship of rehearsals and of people to work with. I mean, television and radio are all very well, and it’s nice to be able to make a living on them, but it isn’t the same kind of companionship that rehearsals give you. And one makes so many friends, who are now dead or not working anymore. But it all suddenly comes to a stop. I can hardly believe it.
JEREMY PAXMAN: But do you think we have become a less, in your lifetime, a less philistine people?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: I think so, yes. Well, it must be so, because of freedom of language, quite apart from everything else.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Does that disturb you?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: I haven’t had to do anything very improper. But I had a lot of dirty words to read in No Man’s Land, and one or two modern scripts I’ve been given. Which rather thrilled me. I felt I was keeping abreast of the times to some extent.
JEREMY PAXMAN: I think they like the thought of your beautiful voice, which everyone has always said is your greatest asset, being used to deliver these profanities. That’s what they like about it, isn’t it?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Yeah, I suppose so. And I think the success of Arthur was people thought it was very brave of me to do the colloquial, sexy dialogue without being embarrassed by it.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Have you consciously cultivated your voice? Of course, all actors cultivate their voice, but you can only work with the raw material with which you’re born.
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: I wasn’t apt to overdo it very much. Olivier I think always felt I was rather less good than people said I was, because he thought I sang all my parts. I wasn’t conscious of actually vocalizing, but I noticed when I did, and I fancied myself, when I was working here, as being very voice conscious. And trying to cure myself of my vocal mannerisms, which were quite something.
JEREMY PAXMAN: How do you enjoy being old?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Oh, I hate it. I had a bad foot last year, which has upset me very much. I can’t do anything without help. It’s very humiliating to be at other people’s mercy. But people are very kind, and help one through. But I couldn’t play a long part now. I don’t suppose I could remember it.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Do you think about death much?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Oh, so many of my friends have died. My most cherished actors and actresses that I’ve worked with so many times have all gone, and I do resent that very bitterly. But it’s no good worrying about it. But I never thought I’d be at a loss for someone to ring up and just say, “I’m coming round to see you because I have some reason or other.”
JEREMY PAXMAN: Do you fear death?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Do I what?
JEREMY PAXMAN: Fear death?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: I don’t know, fear more pain and aching and, and not being able to enjoy food and party’s and all kinds of things I used to enjoy very much. I had a wonderful innings. I knew all of the great time of my time, and I do resent that I can’t have some of them back.
JEREMY PAXMAN: What do you think will happen to you after you die?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: I try not to think about it because there isn’t any point, you’ll never get an answer, so you may as well hope for the best. That someone will say a kind word, but not too kind. It’s boring being adored, when you see a man like Burton, wasting his life, although he appeared to have everything. And I think one becomes increasingly guilty at seeing the world go by and not taking more interest in it.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Guilty?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Yes, I’ve never done anything for anybody. I haven’t fought another war.
JEREMY PAXMAN: What’s the point of feeling guilty at the age of 95?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Well I suppose I picture so many things that may upset one. Particularly the death of people you are fond of, and wonders why they should be chosen rather than yourself. It is a terrible threat hanging over your head, which somehow you are more aware of when you are old than when you are young.
JEREMY PAXMAN: But you don’t feel that you have wasted your life do you?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: Well I have played in bad plays, and given bad performances, which I am very much aware of. But I have never have, I always enjoy the discipline of being on the dot and enjoying working with people, who have taught me so much.
JEREMY PAXMAN: But you wouldn’t do any of it differently would you? If you were starting all over again?
SIR JOHN GIELGUD: No, no I wouldn’t.
JEREMY PAXMAN: Thank you very much.