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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2000 / 13 Elul, 5760

Paul Greenberg

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Consumer Reports


Will there always be an England?

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THE SUN is setting on a certain kind of English style, namely the lack of one. Two milestones may mark the end of the road for the unadorned English character as we used to know it:

First, there was the hundredth birthday of Queen Mother Elizabeth, widow of good King George VI and mother of the current monarch. Her daughter, Elizabeth II, shows no sign of putting down the reins at 74, despite all the problems of her rambunctious family, or maybe because of them.

There is nothing glamorous about this reigning queen or her mother; they have left that sort of thing to the next generation of royals and their tangled lives. In these two women there is a daily fortitude. They share an English domesticity, even dowdiness, that comes as a refreshment in a culture that has overdosed on charisma.

This wasn't the first time the Queen Mum had stepped out onto the balcony of Buckingham Palace to the cheers of tens of thousands. Half a century ago, on V-E Day, there had been the tumultuous victory rally marking the end of The War.

But the Queen Mother was most a queen of England -- in the tradition of the first Elizabeth -- for the six long years before there was victory to cheer. There were times when all seemed dark, and hope was a distant thing. That's when the King and Queen would pick their stiff, awkward way through the rubble of a blitzed London -- and many another bombed-out city that had attracted the interest of the Luftwaffe.

Ah, those were the days, and nights. No victory celebration could outshine British fortitude in the years 1939-45 -- especially 1940-41, when England stood alone against the onslaught. The bulldog voice of Churchill may have rallied the British lion ("We shall defend our island whatever the cost may be'') in its finest hour, but the sight of the royal couple and their girls struck something deep in the English character. The thin voices of the little princesses over the wireless, wishing all the children of England a good night, reminded the British of the small, simple things they were fighting to save, and would never let go.

It has been so long now that it is the archaeologists, not the historians, who are busy preserving these years. They've just surveyed what remains of the fortifications the British erected along the coast in anticipation of the Nazi invasion. One pillbox has been restored complete with the words scrawled on its side by the Home Guard gunner who manned it: Hitler took Poland. Hitler took France. Hitler won't take this pillbox. He didn't.

The great ideals their statesmen pronounce may resonate, but to the English it is the small things, the private things of home and hearth and pub, that make England England. Like the English sense of privacy itself. The royal family were respected not because they were above, but because in the darkest times they were beside.

That may no longer be true in times when royals are considered just another kind of celebrity. But once (1939-45) it was. And the Queen Mother was always there. She still is at 100, enjoying her occasional day at the races and her gin cocktail in the evening. She's earned it. Happy Birthday, Ma'am. Good Show.

The second milestone is a gravestone -- that of Alec Guinness, the great English actor. But not a Great Actor in the sense of Olivier, Richardson or Gielgud. He did Shakespeare, but there was never anything stentorian about Alec Guinness. Except in his burlesques -- not his best roles -- there was no sense that he was acting at all.

Alec Guinness was just being himself, or rather being anyone but himself. Since he may have been the most self-effacing of great actors. Maybe that's why the great Martita Hunt, whom he talked into giving him acting lessons as a young man, gave up on him early. "You'll never make an actor,'' she told him. Later they would make "Great Expectations'' together.

At his best, Alec Guinness reacted rather than acted. His portrayals of characters who are (ital)acted upon(unital) are what stay in undimmed memory. There is the quiet little bank clerk of the "Lavender Hill Mob'' who figures out a way to smuggle gold bullion out of England. (In the form of those little replicas of the Eiffel Tower you see everywhere in Paris. Perfect!)

In "Lawrence of Arabia,'' Alec Guinness was Prince Feisal, dreaming of the lost gardens of Cordoba, leaving mere generals and diplomats to deal with humdrum reality. And most memorable of all may have been his Colonel Nicholson in "The Bridge on the River Kwai.'' What held us in thrall was his ability to display the vagaries of human emotion within an accepted code of honor. It was his British reserve that captivated in a way that unbridled exhibitionism cannot.

Alec Guinness' greatest fan may have been Walter Kerr, the critic for the New York Times when that paper had a code of its own -- a belief in objective truth and All The News That's Fit to Print. It was Kerr who said of Guinness: "There is a still center in the actor, a coal in the ashes, that defies us to will our eyes away.''

John le Carre's George Smiley acquired a humanity in Guinness' portrayal that he never had on the printed page. All right, Sir Alec may not have been able to breathe life into the comic-book character of Obe Wan Kenobe in "Star Wars,'' but everybody needs a pension plan. (Guinness got a percentage of the take.)

One is not surprised to learn that Sir Alec (Walter Kerr preferred to call him Saint Alec) lived a quiet, unassuming life in an unpretentious house in Hampshire with the wife he married in 1938 -- much like the genteel ax murderer in bowler and tweed who gets away with it in a good English detective story. If there was a single attribute Guinness brought to his craft, it was a shy intelligence.

So long as the English have repertory companies and Shakespeare's plays, there will always be great English actors. The question is: Once the Brits are trading in euros instead of pounds, and producing comedies as vulgar as anything Americans can make, will there be an English character for those actors to play within?

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