Monday, 7 May 2012
I believe (although I cannot prove this, and there may be some-one, possibly a centenarian, out there who will contradict me, ) that I may be the last fan of Sir John Martin-Harvey on the planet, a fan, I might add, of an actor who died before I was born, and whose work I only know from books, my collection of Edwardian postcards, and one silent film ('The Only Way' based on 'A Tale of Two Cities) which I had to wait nearly forty years to see, when it was finally screened at the NFT, to my absolute joy and enthrallment. I loved it, despite the fact that by the time silent movies arrived, Martin-Harvey was twice the age Sydney Carton is supposed to be, and therefore was recreating a role he'd first played on stage as a much younger man.
I was seventeen when I bought this postcard of Martin Harvey as Sydney Carton (in 'The Only Way') in 1967, (I'd been in the Portobello Road looking for Henry Irving memorabilia at the time) and it was love at first sight. Here, as I quickly learned, was a man whose theatrical art had embodied everything that appealled to me at that age, romance, a tortured anti-hero bent on self-sacrifice, he'd been the ultimate, tragic, Dickensian rake. And he was so absolutely gorgeous too...no wonder he'd been one of the top matinee idols of his day.
After acquiring the postcard, I embarked on the research; sadly, I was very inexperienced and had no idea how to go about it properly. I remember writing to The Stage, asking for anyone who remembered Martin-Harvey to write to me and received several replies, including one from his daughter, (then, I think, in her late seventies) but I was too shy to follow it up and visit her in person. Such a lost opportunity, particularly as I've since learned from the most recent book on Martin-Harvey that she lived well into her nineties. I wish I could find those letters now; there was one from an actress who'd appeared in 'The Only Way' and who described the beauty of his voice as he proclaimed 'It is a far, far better thing...' and the agony of having to boo him in her role as a sans-culotte when all she wanted to do was listen.
There are at least three references in literature to Martin-Harvey; one in Elizabeth Taylor, as already mentioned, one in a forgotten novel by Cecil Roberts, 'A Terrace in the Sun' and one in James Joyce's Ulysses, no less, when lame Gertie sees a man on the strand who looks like him, but with a moustache....which she prefers, not being stage struck.
I remain, at my advanced age, very stage-struck.....