It may not have been uncanny but it did give me a jolt all the same. Sir Alec Guinness was playing the central figure of Smiley in the TV adaptation of John le Carré’s spy thrillers, Smiley’s People. I couldn’t decide where the credit belonged, to le Carré’s descriptive precision or Guinness’s unmistakable cut-out-for-the-role gait. But the picture I had formed in my mind on reading the novels that comprise the Smiley saga was brought to life on the screen in the person of Alec Guinness. George Smiley could not have been better presented. Not only physically, but character and temperament-wise too. I still nostalgically recall my excitement on going through the first segments of that TV series. Guinness stood out for me in those years as it. Every role he was cast in, cinema or TV, signalled an almost perfect fusion of character and actor.
Sir Alec died some weeks ago, and The Guardian of London hailed him as “the best known and loved English actor of the 20th century”. George Lucas, director of Star Wars in which Guinness played Obi Wan-Kenobi, said “he was one of the most talented and respected actors of his generation and brought an amazing range and versatility to his work. The world has lost a great artist.” Alec Guinness had the firm advantage over other actors that a theatre background brings. Theatre, arguably, is a more demanding medium than cinema. It happens live and direct. You have to succeed there and then, with your characterisation and empathy with the role. There are no cuts or second-takes. Excelling in that medium almost certainly means there is a precious ounce or two of rare acting talent in your mould. Guinness’s career spanned over sixty years and truck loads of movies, stage plays and TV roles. By some estimations, of all the great British stage actors, his was the busiest film career. His success was not due so much to a natural endowment as it was to a painstaking diligence and care for detail. On the set of Tinker, Tailor, for example, “there was a scene,” recalls le Carré, “where he had to walk into his home at night. He practised endlessly at his own home, walking through the front door, picking up the mail, and dropping the lock without having to look at it”.
Alec Guinness embodied another quality that perhaps more than any other set him apart from the rest of his colleagues. Depth. Acting is an intriguing art genre. At first sight, it appears straightforward, but in truth, as any accomplished screen actor would confirm, it demands a degree of empathy that transcends quotidian aping. Still, beyond that, there is the more profound depth that is attained when one understands and appreciates what the human person is in himself. Over and beyond the extemporaneous expression of another character (however faithfully, however creditably), in this particular art form there is a niche which is filled only with great difficulty when the harmony which derives from that appreciation and comprehension of what the human being and the world are, in themselves, is lacking. I risk losing your attention for the seeming ambiguity of this claim. But the point is not an unimportant one.
The Guardian (London) described Sir Alec as having “a spiritual severity, together with those clear, wide-open eyes that lent his performances force and authenticity... In his later career,” it continued, “he became something of an icon of spirituality and enlightened human understanding.” The Times (London) said, “he had a dimension lacking in his more celebrated rivals... Yet Sir Alec was neither a pretentious actor nor one incapable of comedy or farce.” It would be impossible to understand the basis of all that or the solidity and authenticity which his life and career embodied, without visiting an experience that he underwent in his career’s early stages.
All too often, the artist arrogates to themselves the duty, intrinsic as it were, of extrapolating their (often unarticulated and unrefined) definitions onto reality, instead of the other way round. They tend to project themselves, believing that to be a legitimate, intimate (and therefore, genuine) expression of rare and insightful knowledge. That’s why the world is awash with what should really be utter and empty esoteric nonsense, but instead are tolerated and even respected as art. True art, real noteworthy (insightful) expressions and contributions, is achieved only when reality - as is, unaltered, explored, and acknowledged - is accepted and adopted as a firm starting point.
Alec Guinness, to put it blithely without unnecessary garb, found God. But I do not mean this in the all too pervading emotional and, thus, superficial and ephemeral sense. I mean it in as much its spiritual dimensions as its crucial, indispensable intellectual side too. In other words, as what it should be: a deep-seated coherent intellectual conviction. The person - and his works - is enriched, given a more wholesome balance, when he takes in the entirety of the world and events, and the proportions and relations of the component parts to one another. That is the kind of vision (from above, looking on to, seeing not only in the two dimensions of length and breadth, but in the third of depth as well) that a spiritual experience gives you. But I almost recoil at the use of that adjective. Yet, it is indeed a spiritual experience, no amount of secularising will change that. T.S. Eliot describes such a pass with his masterly precision: “those to whom nothing has happened cannot understand the unimportance of events”.
In the 1994 biography, Master of Disguise, Garry O’Connor traces parallels between Guinness’s conversion and T.S. Eliot’s. Eliot’s led him to turn firmly to the Anglo-Catholic niche of the Anglican Church, whereas Sir Alec’s had him knocking on the doors of the Roman Catholic congregation. Nevertheless, their respective interior twists and exterior plights left them both unearthing and reaching out to an inner core they had hitherto either been oblivious of, or neglected.
Guinness’s journey began with seemingly prosaic events. As with T.S. Eliot, you could draw the before-and-after scenarios. In Eliot, on the “before” side lay his poem The Waste Land, and on the “after” lay Ash Wednesday, in which, according to O’Connor, after reflecting in his other works that terrible, post-first world war despair and nervous exhaustion of society, he celebrated his sense of recovery, his turning towards life. Guinness, in turn, after a similar experience of war “could find no identity at the centre of himself, and therefore of his acting”.
Art, in its multiple genres, is a captivating endeavour. It is a mode of expression of self that makes it more intimate than any other profession. Intrinsic to it is its very characteristic as a projection of human nature through Art’s various modes of expression. Music, painting, poetry and prose, sometimes with clear and sharp divides separating them, retain that common ground of the person exteriorising what took root and was given shape inside. Thus, where there is an interior lack of harmony or where there are unresolved contradictions within, in a sincere work of art, the dichotomy or otherwise is bound to show. Sylvia Plath’s poems, even though works of genius, are also a melancholic and fatalistic experience. Her eventual suicide, sadly, was not a surprise.
And so, the precious pearl in Guinness’s experience was not just his turning to God (I hesitate again to sound “spiritual”), but his thereby putting things and events around and within him in their proper perspective. In an artiste’s life and world, something as intimate and [important] as religion plays a crucial, even precarious, role: make or mar; depending on his response to it. What does transpire is that the outcome informs the aftermath tremendously; nothing comes close to that attempt at harmonising body and soul and reality. Guinness’s conversion was key. In O’Connor’s words, “he has renounced something, made up his mind so that he would never, from that time forth, go back on this decision... All religion has at its centre, before it can be real to the believer, an act of conversion or at least affirmation.”
It would be futile to try in any other way to explain the subsequent robustness, harmony and authenticity in Sir Alec’s acting and life. In an interview in 1959, he remarked how his new found faith “seems such an eminently reasonable way of living; it is so sensible. The very opposite of puritanical.” According to O’Connor, Guinness subsequently in his career found greater ease in making those public transformations, those leaps, into men of genius, those notable leaders and heroic figures, instead of the “little men you do so well,” as John Gielgud had described them.
In his personal life, the new-found perspective took shape in a unique and edifying personality. Not for him was the notoriety of fame. “You can only be your own personality,” he once said. “And I’m just happy to be an actor. If I tried to swan around, I wouldn’t know how to behave. If I tried to be a superstar, I’d be a laughing stock!” Le Carré said of him, “Alec loathes flattery and mistrusts praise”. He recalled him as a man who thought deeply about life and death, who became a committed Catholic and at the same time a man who relished good living. “Form [was] desperately important to him. As someone familiar with chaos, he treasured good manners and good order.” Sir Alec was modest, humble and self-effacing. And rich.
Alec Guinness died after a protracted illness at the age of 86. It was an event that couldn’t have taken him by surprise. “I always expected to die at 64,” he had once remarked, “I hope to die in what they call a state of grace and in good order.” Once asked what obituary he would prefer, his reply was unequivocal. “I think if my ghost could hover outside some London Underground station on a foggy November night, just as the crowds were pouring down, I’d like to see the poster, ‘ACTOR DIES’.”
Family and friends gathered for the funeral at the church where he attended Mass for more than 40 years. Merula, his playwright wife, and their son, Matthew, survive him. He had been married for 62 years. It is said that their marriage was as happy as it was long.◼︎