Sir Nigel Hawthorne created one of the best-known television comedy characters, in Yes Minister‘s Sir Humphrey.
But there was of course much more to this theatrical knight than a single, if monumentally successful, role.
His autobiography Straight Face, completed just days before he died at the end of 2001, is written in a delightfully incisive and anecdotal manner.
In it, Hawthorne examines the lesser-known aspects of his life alongside his successes, with wry asides and heartfelt prose. But the book begins by placing all that follows into context.
At the peak of his career, having been Oscar-nominated for his role as George III in The Madness Of King George and knighted, he found himself struck down by cancer. This makes the remainder of the book all the more evocative and uplifting. We jump back in time to Cape Town, South Africa, where Hawthorne grew up. He tells us in candid terms and colourful language about his stern father, with whom he endured a difficult relationship, of his lonely childhood and how he came to believe in himself as an actor.
Describing himself as intellectually inept – a conclusion somewhat at odds with the evidence presented here – he left university early to pursue his dream. Several knocks later, he had saved up enough money to strike out on his own to London, world capital of theatre.
As the young Hawthorne struggled to come to terms with his sexuality, we hear about the awful ways in which homosexuals were forced to live in 1950s and 1960s London. But these unhappy anecdotes are interspersed with a whole swathe of happier recollections of his theatrical experiences, with tales of his theatre colleagues as enlightening as his observations of the world around him.
He speaks with authority, honesty and eloquence about his visit home to Cape Town after the introduction of apartheid. His fascinating accounts of each theatre project in which he involved himself suggest that he was someone to whom people could easily relate to.
Hawthorne spent much of his long acting career in theatre, where he won over audiences with his roles in plays as diverse as Oh What A Lovely War, Privates On Parade and a seminal if ultimately unsatisfactory RSC production of King Lear. Infamously, as he prepared to attend the Oscars as a nominee, he was unceremoniously “outed” by the press.
It was a low point for a very private man. Rightly, he could not see what his personal life had to do with anybody other than himself and those around him, notably his long-term partner Trevor Bentham. He did not think he should have had to declare himself homosexual any more than other people have to declare their heterosexuality. His book makes it clear that he made no secret of his sexuality to his friends and colleagues if approached about it, but saw no need to emphasise it or make it an issue.
In Straight Face we get an intimate portrait of a fragile and self-deprecating man who jumped feet first into all manner of situations, only to suffer from a lack of confidence later. The scene is set in the last chapter for the past to merge with the present, and a starkly contrasting prose style takes over for the epilogue, written by Trevor Bentham. After the hilarity and shared humour of the rest of this book, Bentham’s highly moving summation of Hawthorne’s life is a well-judged and beautiful end.
It is clear that Sir Nigel had an ability to touch people’s emotional depths both on stage and away from it, not least in this book. He will be, and is, greatly missed.