Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4
BBC Radio 4, 4-8 November 2013
The first question to ask while listening to this biography is -- do we actually need it? Does Ziegler's construction of Olivier contribute anything more to the portrait of the great actor that we did not know already? Despite the publisher's claims that the author has drawn on hitherto unpublished letters and other material, Olivier does not manage to fulfil that purpose. The narrative follows a familiar path, tracing the actor's humble origins in Surrey, to his apprenticeship at the Old Vic, his path to stardom on stage - and subsequently screen - in the Thirties and Forties, and his eventual assumption of the directorship of the National Theatre.
Olivier himself emerges as a powerful personality driven by the desire for success; so much so, in fact, that he frequently neglected his personal life. His treatment of his first wife Jill Esmond was nothing short of shameful; and Ziegler's narrative implies that he soon tired of Vivien Leigh, despite their status as the uncrowned king and queen of the British stage. He much preferred male company, taking advice from close friends such as Ralph Richardson.
Toby Jones' reading of the biography proved highly dramatic - no mean performer himself, he used different voices for different characters. Thankfully he did not try to impersonate Olivier to the degree that Peter Sellers did many years ago (when the comedian released a version of the song Twist and Shout using Olivier's Richard III voice), but Jones managed to recapture some of Olivier's particular vocal nuances, as compared to those of Richardson. The producer of this Book of the Week was Clive Brill.