Radio 4’s Saturday night Archive slot (8pm) marks the centenary of Alec Guinness’s birth yet fails to pin down the actor. His enigma extended from professional versatility to private paradox. He hated ostentation but loved fame. His parentage was a mystery (he was illegitimate, though support came from a wealthy source), which his disliked alcoholic mother refused to clarify. Guinness’s friend Eileen Atkins maintains this left him psychologically scarred.
The programme’s excerpts of Guinness’s own voice suggest a person imitating Guinness to the point of caricature. Someone suggests Guinness may have had a thousand faces but none was his, and the voice offers no clue to the human beneath.
Early struggles defined his career: the classical stage for love, films for money, a combination later extended to a passion for new theatrical writing – TS Eliot meekly blue-pencilled loads of The Cocktail Party following Guinness’s suggestions during rehearsals – even when audiences walked out shocked by a transvestite Guinness in Simon Gray’s Wise Child. The Bridge on the River Kwai won him an Oscar but he fell out with the director David Lean. The fault may lie with either man: the programme recounts the actor’s “dark side”. His sometimes “dismissive” attitude to his loyal wife could verge on the cruel.
Unexpectedly rich in his sixties thanks to Star Wars, Guinness came up with a television immortal: John le Carré’s Smiley. To paraphrase Christopher Wren, si monumentum requiris, just turn on the box. A profession where observation and, perhaps, self-deception are professional tools, acting is another form of spying, borrowing different realities. Not surprisingly, its practitioners can lose themselves. Guinness’s face is a contradictory mixture of the nakedly vulnerable and sphinx-like secrecy. This intriguing programme, presented by Alistair McGowan, removes layer after layer from its subject to reveal, as with Peer Gynt’s onion, a hollow at the heart. ★★★★☆