DONALD SPOTO: Once Upon A Time…

“I could not believe it when I read that American biographer had said all those things about me!” PETER WYNGARDE

Although Donald Spoto’s ‘Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates‘ has been referred to on this Website several times within the context of other articles, we’ve never thus far had an detailed look at the ‘biography’ and the content relevant to this Blog; namely those sections concerning PETER’s ‘supposed’ relationship with its subject.

Spoto was born in New York in 1941, Donald Spoto is a writer and theologian. He’s penned numerous ‘biographies’ about religious figures as well as film and theatre actors. Some of those include James Dean, Grace Kelly, Ingrid Bergman, Tennessee Williams and Saint Francis of Assisi.

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‘Otherwise Engaged: The Life of Alan Bates‘. was published in the UK in 2008 (Arrow Publishing: ISBN-10: 009949096X)both from the press and public. Some professional critics wrote that it was too involved; as if Spoto was trying to include excessive amounts of irrelevant information, whilst cinema aficionados and fans alike saw an opportunity to protest against the author – not only in response to this volume, but for the numerous inaccuracies contained in his previous biographies, which included those of Hollywood stars Audrey Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Joan Crawford.

There was similar criticism of Spoto’s 1993 account of Laurence Olivier’s life, with no detractor more vocal than the actor’s son, Traquin (1936- ), who reacted angrily to allegations made in the book about his father. Whilst anyone familiar with Spoto’s earlier works would ascribe little importance to the writers’ claims, Tarquin justifiably saw these charges as being detrimental to Olivier’s legacy.

The contentious section(s) that concern our sphere of interest relates to PETER’s so-called ‘relationship’ with Alan Bates. Spoto maintains that the two actors met after a performance of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back In Anger’ at the Royal Court Theatre [1] in May of 1956, when PETER was said to have gone backstage to congratulate Bates on his performance: “Within two weeks,” Spoto declares provocatively, “the two were living together”.

What actually happened is as follows: There was public house in Slone Square where the actors and staff at the Royal Court would often have lunch or wind down after a performance. Bates, who was living in a flat in Battersea at the time, had been asking around the pub if anyone knew of a relatively inexpensive flat nearer to the centre of London.

Following his divorce from actress, Dorinda Stevens in 1955, PETER had been residing with a lady by the name of Ruby Talbot in Paddington, but had latterly purchased a former weavers cottage in Kent – right next door to fellow thespian, Dame Edith Evans, who’d engage him to chop wood for her fire. He too had been on the lookout for an apartment in central London which he could use when working “in town”, rather than staying in soulless and expensive hotels. It was he who approached Bates with the idea that they share a place in order to keep down costs.  

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⇑ Electoral register showing PETER living with Ruby Talbot.

PETER was then working at Pinewood Studios on a TV play called ‘The Salt Land’, which had been written by Peter Shafer. His father, who owned several properties in London, was happy to rent out a two-bedroomed ‘Garden Flat’ in a smart Georgian terrace to the two actors.

At no point in his book does Spoto ever make clear that it was common practice both then, and now, for young actors to share accommodation in an effort to reduce living costs. David Niven famously shared a flat with a number of actors, including Errol Flynn, but there was never any suggestion that they were anything other than friends.

“The flat was a blessing”, PETER says. “Whenever I was working, I had it, and vice-versa. On those occasions that we were both working, there was a divan bed in the second bedroom, so it was the perfect set-up.”

In 1958, PETER embarked on a British national tour as Count Marcellus in ‘Duel of Angels’, during the course of which he began a relationship with his Co-star, Vivien Leigh [2]. In early 1959, he became resident at the Old Vic in Bristol for nine months, where he both performed and directed ‘Taming of the Shrew’, ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night‘ and ‘Cyrano de Bergerac’. Immediately thereafter, he re-joined the company of ‘Duel of Angels’ for an eighteen-month tour of the United States. Throughout that time he rarely, if ever, used the flat in London.18198445_1723067707719978_8872324003202855095_n

 

A cutting from the Detroit Free Press – Thursday, 24 November, 1960. This was published at the time that Spoto maintains that PETER was in a relationship with Alan Bates ⇒

 

On his return from America, PETER purchased a villa in Spain which he’d often use when he was between jobs, The property had been bought specifically with his parents in mind, as they would often fly out from their home in Scotland to spend time with their son.

“The only time that Alan and I took what might be considered a ‘holiday’ together, was a trip to Greece”, PETER says. “We booked through a travel agent in a dingy part of Earls Court which had a poster in the window which said: ‘Welcome to Greece – a dream come true!’

“Alan had never been farther than Derby, his native hometown. The “dream” meant a four-day, third-class train journey to Brindisi in southern Italy, with nothing to eat but sandwiches and warm Coca-Cola. We then took an old ferry boat (circa 1914) to Crete, on which we had to share a bunkroom  with five Turkish men who told us they worked in the ship’s galley. We only found out when we docked days later at Heraklion that they were wanted for armed robbery. Two of the men had tried to rape Alan one night, so we reported the incident to the Captain who, as it turned out, was related to one of the men. All of them – including the Captain, were arrested when we reached port for smuggling drugs, plus two other minor offences.

“We were both struggling actors, and had saved up for a supposed “guaranteed” First Class return to Crete. The irony was, of course, that Alan returned to Crete when he was offered the part of Basil, in ‘Zorba the Greek’ years later.”

It was around this time that Bates met Victoria Ward (1939-1992), who he subsequently married in 1970. Yet in spite of his involvement with the actress, AND his ‘theoretical’(!) “relationship” with PETER, Bates up sticks and went to live with Rock Hudson in California!

PETER-1⇐PETER around the time he first met Alan Bates

Spoto also alleged that “EVERYONE” within the acting fraternity “KNEW” that PETER was “gay”. The film and theatre community is very large, and encompasses not only the actors themselves, but directors, producers, technicians and all points between, and yet the author was either unable or unwilling to provide any corroborative evidence to back up this statement. In spite of the absence of any supporting testimony, Spoto attempted to expand on the ‘everyone knew’ stance, when he asserts that PETER was broadly known amongst his colleagues from the late Fifties onwards as ‘Petunia Winegum’.

In reality, this name was first used in a sketch by the Two Ronnies comedy double-act during a Jason King parody that was broadcast on Thursday, 22nd November, 1973 [3]. Spoto, an American, was unlikely to be familiar with the hilarious duo, or of their immense popularity in the UK during the 1970’s and 80’s. [4]. It’s probable that the author heard mention of the name whilst he was researching his book, and simply slotted it in at a random point in the timeline as it suited his agenda.

It’s important to note that PETER had only ever seen himself as a mentor to Bates, with whom he freely shared his contacts and knowledge of the business. On reading Spoto’s book, it soon becomes clear to anyone with even the most minute glimmer of insight, that PETER was far more sinned against than sinning – yet the author does everything in his power to paint him as a villain.

It was only after Bates took up with his future wife, Victoria Ward, that any unsound theories of his relationship with PETER began to circulate. The following is a quote from the actress, Mary Ure (1933-1975), who appeared alongside PETER in ‘Duel of Angels’ (1958, 1959-60) and ‘The Two Character Play’ (1967):

“Victoria (Ward) was known to be a loose cannon and was incredibly possessive. A couple of friends and I had bumped into Alan, and we arranged to go for dinner at a little place we knew in Chelsea, when Victoria burst in and began screaming that PETER WYNGARDE had been f*****g her husband. We all knew it was ridiculous, but Alan was absolutely mortified!”

Whilst researching his book, Spoto had requested a meeting with PETER to discuss his friendship with Bates, which ran into several hours over the course of two weeks. PETER had specifically requested that Spoto forward him a signed agreement to remove any material that he (PETER) didn’t agree upon. Needless to say, the author inevitably reneged on this assurance, and only sent the document AFTER the book was published.

Such underhandedness deserves only the most savage contempt.

[1] PETER was a founding member of The Royal Court Theatre.

[2] Further reading: ‘Damn You, Miss Scarlett’

[3] Since the Two Ronnies sketch which first used the name ‘Petunia Winegum’ was only broadcast in 1973, it couldn’t possibly have been widely known by British actors prior to that date.

[4] The Two Ronnies Show ran from 1971 to 1987.

 READERS COMMENTS ON ‘OTHERWISE ENGAGED: THE LIFE OF ALAN BATES’:

  •  Disappointing. Hard to put my finger on why this book was so unappealing – it guess it lacked depth and insight and was neither for someone interested in his acting (too superficial – summarising plot and quoting reviews) or his personal life (he was a wonderful chap who did not like getting too close to people – except his immediate family).
  • The book seemed well researched but ended up as a list of acting jobs with little insight beyond repetitive praise of what a good actor Bates was and how the company liked working with him. I’m not sure if it was the kindle edition, but the book had typos and also should have been better edited, if only to avoid repetition.
  • If you are a fan of Alan Bates and are looking for a decent biography then give this book a miss. One wonders why the Bates family entrusted this task to an American writer who is better known for production line bios of Hollywood stars and “celebrities” than serious actors.
  • The book reads more like a chronological list of Bates’ films and plays than a record of one of the most appealing actors of his generation.
  • Spoto shows little knowledge or understanding of the UK or the British theatre or cinema. Much of the material “quoting” Bates read suspiciously like a cut and paste job. John Mortimer’s play and TV version ‘A Voyage Around My Father’, which also featured Olivier, is dismissed in a few sentences, as is ‘Women in Love’. Once again no attempt seems to have been made to talk to other participants, such as director Ken Russell or actress Glenda Jackson, who could have given some comments and insights. Bates was in the first performance of John Osborne’s ‘Look Back in Anger’ which revolutionized the British stage, but Spoto does not have the insight to convey the importance of this breakthrough.
  • He is careless with facts. For example, he quotes a character as saying “Brendan Behan reminds me of another Welshman, Richard Burton”. Behan is in fact Irish. He refers to Diane Cilento as an “English actress” although she’s Australian…
  • Films like ‘Far from the Madding Crowd’ are treated superficially, with no build up and no follow up. One wonders whether Spoto even tried to talk to other actors involved, such as Terence Stamp (who has also become a writer) or Julie Christie. 

The Hellfire Club: The OFFICIAL PETER WYNGARDE Appreciation Society: https://www.facebook.com/groups/813997125389790/

 

 

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