Ronald Neame, director and lifelong friend of Alec Guinness, recalls the quiet, private man who nevertheless craved praise - and liked making money His favourite film was Star Wars
Alec Guinness came into my life back in the mid-1940s. In 1944 J Arthur Rank had a vision of a new post-war British cinema that could take on Hollywood, and he sent me to California to find out how we could re-equip our studios. I had left as a cinematographer, but when I went back I felt that I could make a film that would appeal to Americans. So I asked Arthur if he would let me be a producer, providing that David Lean was the director.
We wanted to film Dickens, a writer Americans knew. We had seen a small-scale stage production in London of Great Expectations, and there was a young actor, Alec Guinness, who had written and produced it and also played Herbert Pocket, Pip's friend. It was he we wanted to repeat the role on screen.
He was then a rather dashing naval officer of 32, and I was 35. We were friends for the rest of his life. I think he was more himself in Great Expectations that he was in any other film that we worked on. He was more fun, more cheerful and far less solemn than he would be later.
David and I decided to do another Dickens film, Oliver Twist, after the success of Great Expectations, and Alec said that he wanted to play Fagin. "Come on, Alec," I said. "You're far too young, and you don't look remotely right." "Just let me show you," he said, and he arranged something with the make-up man. When the time came, in walked the Cruikshank image of Fagin. As soon as we saw him we knew that Alec Guinness could play anything.
A producer can be a remote figure to an actor, and it is only when you direct that you really get to know them. I had read a book by Arnold Bennett called The Card, and Eric Ambler wrote a script. Alec was very pleased to take it on. Privately, he was very self-effacing and introverted, and although he had his little vanities he always liked to be anonymous, unnoticed and unobtrusive, unrecognised on the street. Yet he happily took on the part of a brash, gregarious charmer who swept his way up the social ladder on the strength of his hypnotic appeal.
Between takes he would revert to being himself. In those days stars did not have the expensive trailers to rest in that they have today, and the back of a car was considered quite adequate. We were on location in the Potteries, and some kids came to see what was going on. They peered through the windows where Alec was resting. "Who's that?" said one. "Oh, it isn't anybody," said the other.
I think that Alec was a natural film actor. Many with so much stage experience have great difficulty bringing their performances down for the screen. The camera somehow sees behind the eyes, and Alec understood this. He was also extremely inventive. There is a scene in which he comes back to his mother, an old washerwoman, with a hat full of sovereigns for her. "I want to play this on the floor lying under the table," he said to me. "How on earth can we do that?" I said. He told me that he would put the hat on his mother's lap, she would scream when she saw its contents, and the coins would fall on the floor, rolling in every direction. Alec would then get down and retrieve them, speaking his dialogue from the floor.
It was on The Card that he asked me for a special favour, that I would cast his young son Matthew to play his younger self. I did, and when Matthew had his big scene to do, Alec was very nervous, making me so. Matthew had been stricken with polio, and Alec had made a private vow that if he recovered he would become a Roman Catholic. Which is exactly what happened.
Not so very long ago the National Film Theatre presented a new print of The Card, and held a special event. Alec called me and said that he wanted to see the film, but did not want any fuss. When introducing the film I knew he was out in the audience and I said: "Sir Alec, the star of this film, is somewhere among you." Afterwards he quietly sidled up to me and said: "Ronnie, I always thought this film was not bad, but it's really much better than I ever thought it was, and I'm very glad I came." And with that he quietly slipped off home to Petersfield, while we all went to the party.
When he was the seedy Gulley Jimson in The Horse's Mouth, his wife said to me: "I can't wait for this to be over." Alec had been getting in character, getting dirtier and dirtier, with black fingernails and a horrible stubble, and she was having to live with this disgusting person who had replaced the fastidious husband she was used to.
It was on this film that Alec gave me a lesson in directing that I never forgot. As the days progressed he became more and more withdrawn. Finally I asked him what the matter was. He proceeded to tell me that almost everybody wants to act at some point in their lives, usually between 10 and 14. Little girls prance around like grand ladies, small boys pretend to be cowboys. As they grow up they go off to be pilots, accountants, dentists or whatever. But the actor always has that part of him or her that never gets beyond 14. An actor has to be praised, encouraged, and every so often, spanked. He had been working on this film for days, putting everything he had into it, and nobody had given him as much as a hint of a compliment. "But Alec," I said, "you're the producer and the star. We've all been far more worried about how we seem to you."
Alec was always proudest of the role of Jock Sinclair, the red-headed fiery Scottish colonel in Tunes of Glory. I had visualised him as the other colonel, the duty-bound Barrow. Alec said no, he had done him in The Bridge on the River Kwai, and so John Mills played him instead.
His favourite film would have been Star Wars. I know that he would often say that he hated the attention he received from that part. But through the generosity of George Lucas, who gave him a percentage of the gross, he became a millionaire many times over, I understand.
The last time I spoke to Alec we arranged a lunch date for the next time I was in England, which was to be next month. The entry stares at me from my diary. I'm so sorry that I now have to cancel.
Ronald Neame was talking to George Perry