It’s 1947 and the world’s most celebrated screen and stage couple are at the height of their careers. On one London film set Laurence Olivier is playing the lead and directing Hamlet, while on another Vivien Leigh is starring as Anna Karenina after her triumph in Gone With The Wind. A year later the couple arrive in Australia to lead a 10-month tour with a company of actors from the Old Vic. The tour is a sell-out but behind the public glitter, cracks in the relationship are beginning to show. And then a handsome young actor called Peter Finch appears on the scene….
Cut to 1938… As the fictional flames roared over the city of Atlanta and the filming of Gone With the Wind took shape, the part of Scarlett O’Hara was still uncast.
The producer, David 0′ Selznick, watching what remained of the set burn, spotted his brother Myron elbowing his way through the extras with a man and a woman in tow. Selznick recognised Laurence Olivier, the famous English actor. But who was the woman dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat shadowing her face?
‘Here, genius,’ said Myron, ‘meet your Scarlett O’Hara.’
The woman whipped off the hat, letting her dark chestnut hair blow wildly in the wind, and smiled into the flames which made her green eyes dance. Selznick couldn’t believe what he saw, Vivien Leigh was indeed Scarlett O’Hara as Gone With the Wind author Margaret Mitchell had described her: ‘The green eyes in the carefully sweet face, turbulent, lusty for life, distinctly at variance with her decorous manner.’
Thus was one of fiction’s most famous heroines brought alive for the 1939 Oscar-laden blockbuster.
In the years that followed, millions have been haunted by Scarlett’s beauty, passion, daring and those unforgettable last words spat out at her by Rhett Butler: ‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’
The part seemed to seal a glittering future for Vivien Leigh. She had so much already — ‘her wondrous, unimagined beauty’, as Olivier called it, and a glorious talent that was to win her two film Oscars and endless applause in the theatre. And, of course, she had an historic love affair with Olivier, who had left his wife and baby son for her as she had left her husband and four-year- old daughter for him.
But beneath the glitz of this golden couple, there was a darkness which threatened to destroy them both. For Vivien was a Jekyll and Hyde creature, one minute sweetness and sanity, the next manic, hysterical and suicidal.
To her public, she was forever the lady — beautifully mannered, exquisitely dressed, radiating charm. But among those who knew her well, many would reverse the Rhett Butler line and say: ‘My dear, it was Vivien who didn’t give a damn.’
George Cukor, who directed part of Gone With the Wind before he was fired, later recalled that on the outside, Vivien was exquisite, but underneath there was something neurotic. The producer-director Gabriel Pascal, watching the rushes of her in his 1945 film Caesar and Cleopatra, was shocked by what he saw on screen. There was something frightening in her eyes,he said,something that made one fear for her more than for oneself.
It was around this time Olivier realised there was something seriously wrong. She had always suffered from bouts of nerves and spells of irrationality, but he had put this down to nervous exhaustion and an intolerance to alcohol.
Then one night, while chatting over dinner, her mood changed. She turned on him verbally, then physically. After about an hour, she crumpled onto the floor and sobbed hysterically. A few minutes later, she couldn’t remember what she had said or done.
They were both terrified. For the first time, she seemed a stranger to him. But she refused to see a doctor, clinging to Olivier as a frightened child to its father.
But she wasn’t completely the innocent. She could also be conniving and sneaky. After a particularly bad spell in New York, Olivier invited Vivien and himself to Noel Coward’s home in Jamaica. But when he confessed to Coward that he thought Vivien was having a nervous breakdown, Coward replied: ‘Nonsense. If any-one’s having a nervous breakdown, you are.’
‘Of course, Vivien had got in first,’ wrote Olivier in his autobiography, Confessions of An Actor.
‘Throughout her possession by that uncannily evil monster, manic depression,’ he says, ‘she retained her own individual canniness — an ability to disguise her true mental condition from almost all except me.’
Even when she was ill with tuberculosis and rested at Notley Abbey, their magnificent country home in Buckinghamshire, her hys-terical turns upset what Olivier hoped would be nine months of peace.
Vivien had another problem, too: nymphomania. The first signs came early on when, during periods of depression, she had distressing sexual fantasies. She sometimes had a compulsion to insist her taxi driver should come into the house with her. At other times, it was a delivery man who caught her attention.
After a while, the fantasies became real. The most famous of them was the actor Peter Finch, a discovery of Olivier’s in
Australia, where the couple enjoyed a triumphant tour with the Old Vic theatre company in 1948. Their visit was treated as almost a royal occasion by their Australian hosts.
Finch had been hanging around Vivien for some time (and vice versa) but it wasn’t until they got on a plane to Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) for the location work on the 1954 film Elephant Walk, that the penny dropped for Olivier.
News quickly reached him that Vivien, helplessly lost in a passionate affair with Finch, was being very indiscreet and undisciplined and was upsetting the filming. Olivier set off for Ceylon but found he could do nothing for her. Weeks later, when filming had moved to the United States, he was summoned again.
David Niven, a close friend, told him that he and Stewart Granger had heard of strange goings-on at the house where Vivien was living.
An old flame had moved in with her. Completely mad, he was lording it around the house draped in long tunics and togas, taking advantage of Vivien’s manic state. Niven and Granger finally decided to break in and discovered Vivien stark naked, balancing on the baluster rail of the landing.
Psychiatrists advised taking her home to England. There was a screaming match as nurses tried to sedate her. Olivier and Danny Kaye, another friend, threw themselves on top of her while the needle went in. But she came round at the airport and another fit followed, this time in front of the newspaper cameras.
Many sessions of electric shock treatment brought her out of it and she seemed relatively stable for a while. Then the same pattern started all over again until one night, Olivier snapped and hurled her across the bedroom. But she struck her left eyebrow on the marble bedside table top. Olivier wrote: ‘I realised with horror that each of us was quite capable of murdering or causing death to the other.’ It was almost the end for them. The beautiful young years he remembered so well were over. They finally parted he, after the divorce in 1960, to marry the actress Joan Plowright, and she to take her final lover, actor Jack Merivale, stepson of Gladys Cooper.
He was still with her when she died in 1967 from the TB which had attacked her so many years before. She was 54.
Merivale, a caring and compassionate companion for Vivien during very trying circumstances, had peeped into her room one July night when he got home from the theatre. She was sound asleep. He went to fix himself a can of soup and 15 minutes later, when he returned to her room, he found Vivien dead on the floor. Her lungs had filled with fluid and she had drowned.
Kick-Ass TV Heroines: Xena – Warrior Princess
What was not to love about Xena? As Lucy Lawless says: “Xena is a bad-ass, kick-ass, pre-Mycenaean girl.” Evildoers, clearly, must stand down, but not only bad guys (and girls) have Xena-phobia. Even heroes quake when she swings her broadsword.
Originally created as a syndicated complement to Kevin Sorbo’s Hercules: The Legendary Journeys, Xena pretty much kicked Herc to the curb. It was like when the Bionic Woman made us lose interest in the Six Million Dollar Man–only more so.
Unlike Lindsay Wagner’s early half-woman, half-machine, Xena wasn’t prone to frailty. Nor did she need robot parts. In fact, the Warrior Princess never lost. If she’s down, it’s not for long.
Plus, she was in touch with the dark side: This big-boned bruiser had definite moments of blood lust, as well as lust of some other varieties. Garbed in a leather miniskirt and armed with her trademark razor-edged, boomerang-action chakram, we watched Xena single-leggedly kick down entire platoons of Roman soldiers.
Sure, there were murmurings about Xena and her softer female sidekick, Gabrielle (actress Renée O’Connor). So what if they liked to conserve bathwater by doubling up? And what’s wrong with close friends frenching once in a while?
Then again, maybe it was true–and there’s anything wrong with that.
Actress: Lucy Lawless
Show: Xena: Warrior Princess
Classic TV Revisited: McMillan And Wife
Starring Rock Hudson and Susan Saint James, McMillan and Wife was a super cute crime-solving saga from the 1970s made for the NBC’s Mystery Movie series.
Who were they?
Hubby was the debonair San Francisco police commissioner Stewart McMillan.
Sally was a foxy, rather scatterbrained dame with a knack for finding corpses.
Worked down the morgue did she?
Hardly. Sally’s finds were usually in some glitzy mansion which the couple were frequenting for a weekend cocktail party. She also had a habit of getting her life threatened or being kidnapped.
Who was in it?
Tragic Hollywood star Rock Hudson no less. He took on Stewart McMillan in his first TV role, after years as a matinee idol with movies such as Giant.
Fans of the lantern-jawed star were dismayed when he went public about having Aids. He had long kept his homosexuality secret. He carried on working in ’80s glam drama Dynasty, but make-up could not disguise the deterioration of this once-statuesque man. He died in 1985, aged 59.
What about Sally?
That role fell to raven-locked Susan Saint James. The Ali MacGraw lookalike was previously in shows such as Alias Smith And Jones and The Name of the Game.
A vital ingredient to McMillan And Wife was sharp-tongued housekeeper Mildred, played by Nancy Walker. Somebody needed to keep the place tidy while they gallivanted about solving crime.
Famous guest stars?
The couple’s conception?
Like Hart To Hart, the idea was borrowed from Dashiell Hammett’s Thin Man books of the ’30s.
Gritty crime drama?
Hardly. These were cosy whodunnit cases, where the brutality of murder was never portrayed. The show was more about the interplay between McMillan and Sally.
Had viewers arrested?
Certainly in the US. It was the fifth highest-rated show in 1972 and 1973.
Fate of the golden couple?
Susan Saint James quit in 1976 over a contractual dispute. Nancy Walker also packed away her duster as housekeeper Mildred.
The dame’s exit was a fatal blow?
Certainly for the character of Sally – she was killed off in a plane crash. But Rock soldiered on with new assistant Sgt Steve DiMaggio (Richard Gilliland). The show became McMillan.
Audiences dwindled and the plug was pulled.
Cosy pillow talk, cocktail parties, Rock Hudson, pyjamas and numerous corpses.
Let’s go to bed. Turn the light out, darling.
Must you eat toast in bed, darling. Apologies, but I’ve got terrible flatulence. Separate bedrooms.
Not to be confused with
My Wife Next Door, Harold Macmillan, The Merry Wives Of Windsor and Mr And Mrs.
Classic TV Revisited: The Royal
The Royal was an ITV drama commission and was inspired by its sister programme Heartbeat.
The lowdown: This nostalgic family drama is set in the swinging 1960s and centres on the staff of a cottage hospital in Yorkshire. Newly qualified doctor David Cheriton (Julian Ovenden) is determined to make a difference to the world and arrives at St Aidan’s Royal Free Hospital in Elinsby full of big ideas. But he clashes with the hospital’s secretary TJ Middleditch (Ian Carmichael) who is determined to run things his way. Then there is the Matron (Wendy Craig) who rules her nurses with a rod of iron and tries in vain to stop them being distracted by the handsome arrival.
Memorable moments: Watch out for former Heartbeat favourite Bill Maynard who crosses dramas and continents as Claude Jeremiah Greengrass. Greengrass has returned from a Caribbean holiday with a mystery illness but that doesn’t stop him trying to earn a fast buck. It doesn’t take long before Claude attracts Matron’s ire.
Trivia: The Royal is a family affair for real life husband and wife Robert Daws (Ormerod) and Amy Robbins (Weatherill). No fewer than seven members of their clan have appeared in the series including their daughters and stepson.
Michelle Hardwick, who played receptionist Lizzie, says her favourite moment in the whole series didn’t come on screen but in the actors’ green room. She says: “I was sitting in there with Wendy Craig and Honor Blackman and we were having a lovely conversation. I sat back and thought ‘Wow, this is great, I can’t wait to tell my gran’.”
A modern day set version called The Royal Today aired 7 January – 14 March 2008.
First broadcast: 2003
Starred: Wendy Craig, Ian Carmichael, Michael Starke, Robert Daws and Julian Ovenden
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