Britain’s most unapologetically “Establishment” playwright, Sir Ronald Harwood, is 80 this month. He was considered something of a throwback even when he began writing plays in the late 1960s, yet his many successes serve as a reminder that public taste has often lagged some way behind that of the bright stars of the New Theatre.
Harwood’s reputation was made in 1980 with The Dresser. It was, like so much else in his life and work, a spectacularly improbable triumph. Set in the grimy dressing-room of “Sir” — a moth-eaten Shakespearean actor on tour clearly based on Sir Donald Wolfit — the play sensitively explores one of the last relationships still mentioned in an undertone: that of master and servant. So shocking was this in the eyes of many of Harwood’s contemporaries that they confidently anticipated the play’s failure — even the amiable John Gielgud was heard muttering criticism as he hurried out of the Garrick Club. But the play went on to storm the West End and was adapted by Harwood for the film starring Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.
Since then, Harwood has written more than 20 plays and screenplays, including The Pianist, for which he received an Academy Award in 2003. More recently, his screen adaptation of his own play Quartet launched the directing career of Dustin Hoffman. He has also written seven novels, a musical libretto, a history of the theatre and Wolfit’s definitive biography.
Born to Jewish parents in Cape Town, Ronnie Horwitz — as he was known until the age of 17 — began life a long way from the red carpet. Forced to share a room with his semi-invalid father, he spent his free time poring over issues of a British magazine, Theatre World. After his arrival in London in 1952 he found work only as a bottlewasher at Lyon’s Corner House until a position as a stagehand in Wolfit’s theatre company became available. This led to his meeting the young Harold Pinter, also taken on by Wolfit that year. The apprentices went on to find their own theatrical niches, but both recognised their debt to the forbidding “Sir”.
He has tasted both glory and defeat — his 2008 co-written film, Australia, did not become an instant classic, and one critic deemed his 2001 play, Mahler’s Conversion, “a dirge”. But he has never been much bothered by brickbats. “Swan Lake had bad reviews,” he says with feigned solemnity. This is perhaps the key to so much of his success. Disarmingly immodest, he can overwhelm even his most scathing critics with his puckish charm.
Harwood has served for more than 40 years as a reminder that the traditions of J.B. Priestley and Noël Coward are not quite dead in British theatre. Like those giants of the last century, he has given his audiences morals without moralising and philosophy without philosophising. For those rare talents, one can only hope that he will still be writing plays at 90.