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REDGRAVE DYNASTY: Family, fame and saluting a steadfast support for the oppressed

Michael and Venessa Redgrave

Sir Michael Redgrave (left) Photo: Allan Warren and Vanessa Redgrave (Right) Photo: Siebbi

Published: 23 August, 2012

A PASSION for performance and extremist political protest, three generations of one family whose dazzling lives have been dogged by personal drama, scandal and dubious relationships, even some so-called angel of death haunting them.

That’s how Tim Adler sees it in his highly readable and obviously unauthorised account of the Redgrave family. Despite decades of screaming headlines, he tells us he is presenting “The Secret Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty”.

He even quotes Vanessa Redgrave’s own declaration: “Public figures must be prepared to cope with all manner of intrusions into their lives and psyches, whether or not they seek out the limelight. It is difficult reading intimate or negative things about oneself.”

And there’s the rub.

As the Leveson inquiry has shown, the rich, the powerful, the talented have all had their lives consumed by the media, as if it was solely on some sacred mission to expose only the sensa­tional worst elements of mankind, and majesty too.

And to do so in some cases, though not this one, by criminal means of discovering the naughty and the nasty in a furore of celebrity fantasy which, amazingly, has failed to halt the disastrous decline in national newspaper circulations.

Not that virtue, even genius, is totally ignored by this tome. Adler sets off on a positive note recalling that when Vanessa Redgrave was born in January, 1937, Laurence Olivier stepped from behind the curtain after a performance of Hamlet at the Old Vic to announce: “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight a great actress has been born – Laertes has a daughter.”

The irony of the moment was that Michael Redgrave filled that fatherless role and his daughter Vanessa was indeed to become one of the truly great actresses of her century.

Subsequent genera­tions of the Redgrave clan have won their own fame entertaining and stimulating us, in more senses than one.

There are enlightening moments, such as Laurence Olivier reluctantly taking playwright Arthur Miller, who was in London with his wife Marilyn Monroe, to see John Osborne’s breakthrough drama Look Back in Anger at the Royal Court, and ending up playing one of his most exciting roles there, as Archie Rice in The Entertainer.

And disturbing life behind the scenes in Hollywood.

But that has obviously not come from one of the band of names Adler has interviewed in his search for the salacious truth – among them Edward Albee, Diane Cilento, Rita Tushingham, Susannah York and Baroness Williams, plus his endless trawl of media sources, whether tested or not.

Indeed, Joely Richardson has demolished some of his claims in a rare interview, revealing that her Oscar-winning mother Vanessa, now 75, is not quite the Marxist she is portrayed having voted Lib-Dem the last time round.

She insisted that her parents had been reduced to caricatures, her brilliant director dad, Tony Richardson, reduced to being a “bisexual father”.

My views are admittedly somewhat coloured by a poignant memory of my days as a stand-in reporter in Fleet Street on Saturdays when the when the Committee of 100 staged a Whitehall demo against the Ministry of Defence as part of a civil disobedience campaign.

The Committee, a breakaway from CND launched by the likes of Bertrand Russell and Ralph Miliband, expected their supporters, among them Vanessa, then aged 24, to be arrested and carted off to jail, but she defiantly sat on the pavement.

Just 50 yards away, her parents, Michael Redgrave and Rachel Kempson, stood in the shadows concerned that no harm came to their daughter.

It was an act of family love and loyalty that made Vanessa’s willing­ness to accept unhappy conse­quences in her belief that nuclear weapons should not destroy the world.

And fortunately, at least on that occasion, no arrests were made, though scores followed at subsequent demos.

What pervades Adler’s tome is some righteous, if bizarre assumption that the firebrand Redgraves, for all their admitted mistakes and errors of judgment, are part of a freak show.

But that hardly stands up when, through the power of protest, society is now dominated by political and sexual deviation, for want of a better word.

The political passion of Vanessa and, in particular her late brother Corin, is an inherent belief that we need, manifestly, to change our crackpot world radically – surely the evidence is all there – the current danger, as expressed by Vanessa, being that we are “imprisoned by politics”, if not by greedy bankers and big business.

We need to salute the Redgraves’ steadfast support for the oppressed, whether they be millions denied freedom by dictators, as in Syria, or travellers seeking peace from sustained harassment.

What is fascinating, in retrospect, is that while thousands will march against unjustified wars or the threat of annihilation, those now suffering from an era of austerity generally do not.

They need to pick up Vanessa’s brave banner and demonstrate their disobedience in opposition to the basic unfair and unjust life too many now face.

If Adler’s determination to denounce helps to promote that, then bravo.

• The House of Redgrave: The Secret Lives of a Theatrical Dynasty. By Tim Adler. Aurum Press, £20


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