The Masters  
The Powell & Pressburger Pages

Dedicated to the work of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger and all the other people, both actors and technicians who helped them make those wonderful films.

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Original at The Independent (article no longer available)

'I saw him on stage and felt I knew him already, as one does with God'
By Peter Hall
23 May 2000

As a young, virtually unknown director, if I offered John Gielgud a part and he didn't want to take it, or couldn't, I would receive a handwritten note in the most exquisite script, thanking me for asking him and saying: "What a pity ... John Gielgud!" These days you're lucky to get a refusal from an agent. But that sums up the huge generosity of John, and explains why he inspired such loyalty.

The first time I saw him, he was starring as Hamlet in Cambridge. I was 12, and I felt I knew him already, as one does with God. I first met him in the 1950s, when he was a very close friend of my friend, (the director) Peter Brook, and he was terribly funny and terribly generous, not offputting at all. There was a tremendous freemasonry in the theatre, which I think there still is, but he, with Ralph Richardson and Peggy Ashcroft, was one of my staunchest supporters during the time I was opening the National Theatre.

I think it's forgotten now, but his work at the Vic in the 1930s, then with his own company, was trailblazing. He was not an old-style actor wanting inferior actors around him so he would look the star, which was what happened in a lot of companies. He wanted to be around people who were better than he was. He believed in that kind of humility. His companies were very happy places, with one humorous qualification - that mercurial mind meant as a director he was always changing it. "Come on from the other side," he'd say. "Why?" the actor would ask. "Because I'm bored with this side."

He was easy to direct. But you had to be on your toes. It was like working with a thoroughbred horse - he would run down any road to see what was at the end of it. It was wonderful but exhausting. He would go anywhere and do anything. He was like quicksilver. He was faster thanhis audience, constantly reassessing himself.

The immediacy of his work was because he was such a great improviser, but within carefully imposed limits. He also had an ability to change with the times. If you listen to the records of how he spoke Shakespeare of the 1930s, he was doing it differently by the 1970s. It's subtle, but he moved. He kept up with the times. I'm not even sure if he was aware he was doing it.

He was a wonderful friend. He loved gossip and he loved political stupidity. And he loved crossword puzzles. Working with John, by five to 10, just before we began rehearsing, he'd have finished The Times crossword.

I visited him until about a year ago, and hadn't seen him since, because of being abroad. That has been the most distressing part of hearing (of his death). But he was blessed and thank God (he had) the ability to go on working to a very late age. That's wonderful, because John lived to work, he really did.

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