Great British Character Actors No.1: Sir Alec Guinness
I thought’d do this from time to time because I’m writing a sort-of sequel to ‘Paperboy’ called ‘Film Freak’, which picks up on elements of the earlier book, with its lists of character actors and movies.
Who better to start with than Sir Alec Guinness? And how typical that his last film role should be as an uncredited mystery guest (in the horror film Mute Witness). The chameleon-like Guinness made fewer films than you’d think, but made every appearance count. He possessed the kind of qualities few actors aspire to having now – modesty, reservation, grace, reticence – and never overplayed his comedic hand. The result is that when you watch one of his performances, you’re never quite sure whether he’s going for laughs or something darker.
In ‘Paperboy’ I pointed out that if you watch ‘The Man In The White Suit’ with the sound off, it looks like a horror film. In an era when most performers mug and grimace to convey comedy, Guinness’s slightly surprised, innocent but possibly lunatic performances are as fresh as they ever were. I recently watched him in the film version of GK Chesterton’s ‘Father Brown’, which perfectly caught the flavour of the stories, and am reminded that he played quite a few vicars. Like ‘The Man In The White Suit’, the film also features a funny turn from horror veteran Earnest Thesiger. But Guinness also played Hitler, Julius Caesar and Obi-Wan Kenobi. I can’t think of anyone remotely like him, before or since.