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STAIRWAY TO STARDOM
By GEORGE H.
THE MAIS ivho "discovered" t h e Peter F inch of present theatre and film fame was the great English actor Sir Laurence Olivier, who with his wife Vivien Leish iv a s here
ivith the Old Vic Company in 1948.
Many people believe that Olivier promptly placed him under contract; but the Englishman9s words were: "If ever you get to London, look me up."
That ivas enough for 32-year-old Finch and his wife, Tamara. They ex- citedly went to London - and met at first ivith' hitter disappointment.
At 4 a.m. the/excited Peter Finch joined a pyjama-clad publicity man outside a tube
station to read the.
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T ONDON is the big
gest, possibly the toughest, and certainly the cruellest city in the world. It is crowded, usually, with despairing young people who go
there to set the Thames on fire, and find that the river is non-inriam mable.
For it is also the most discouraging city in the world. And on November 17, 1948, when Peter Finch and his wife, arrived from Australia in the middle of a damp fog, dreary and cold and evil-smelling, it was un- deniably the most cheerless city in the world.
The Oliviers were not ex- pected back from America until the following day,- and they filled in time by using the hotel phone-Tamara to look for a flat, Peter for a job. And there were friends who rang-producer Ralph Smart, with a promise to help, although he himself had nothing in production Harry Watt, the film dir- ector, with advice to seek a film test with Ealing.
The days passed, and the Oliviers were back, but still there was no word from them. And then a week later came a bunch of flowers and a card from the Oliviers with a "belated welcome" and an . invitation to have drinks-in about a fort- night's time.
The Finches, accustomed to the quick', impulsive Aus- tralian way of doing things, had not yet geared them- selves to the always curious, frequently irritating, tempo of a city where you always feel that sooner or later you will have to write letters to make appointments to tele- phone people.
The party in the Oliviers' Chelsea home was something of an anti-climax. Sherry and biscuits . . . only half an hour . . . and then Sir Laur- ence and Lady Olivier had to "dash off" to a dinner party. Olivier had, he said, recommended Finch to his own agent ...
As he was putting on his overcoat, Sir Laurence turn- ed again to Finch. "You're all right, aren't you?" he said. "Give us a ring some time."
In the taxi going home, Peter and Tamara sat side by side quite stiffly, staring ahead, saying nothing to each other, too downcast to speak. They were not to know then that. Olivier probably had "Daphne Laureola" in his mind, but was waiting to see . . .
In tne meantime' Harry Watt, who had worked for a couple of years in Austra
lia and was infected by the virus of exuberant energy, was indefatigably, busy on Finch's behalf. Eventually he got Finch his first job in England, played in a film. "Train of Events," opposite
Finch -attacked the job with'the intensity of despair. Both he and his wife had been suffering from gastric influenza. They were living now in a horrible little flat in an ineffably dreary street in Notting Hill, not far from where the murderer Christie was beginning to busy himself with his grisly chain of horrible murders.
The script was delivered tc the Notting Hill flat at mid- night by Cecil Tennant, man- aging director of Laurence Olivier Productions Ltd.. who wrinkled his nose with acute distaste at the grubby little flat and said, "Puuugh!"
On the following night Finch was told to present himself at the Wyndham's Theatre on the" following Tuesday to do an audition with Dame Edith Evans's un- derstudy.
Peter sat up almost all night for two nights over the script, reading, reading, read- ing .. .
It was freezing cold on the day of the audition and'the empty theatre, with only a single naked working-light over the bare stage, was cheerless and intimidating. In the darkness, in the front stalls, jvere Dame Edith Evans, Sir Laurence Olivier, Vivien Leigh, James Bridie, and producer Murray Mc- Donald. On the austere stage, seated on two hard backed chairs, were Diana Graves, Dame Edith's under- study, and Peter Finch.
"Right!" called a voice from the dark cavern of the empty theatre. They began.
After a time, Olivier's voice echoed from the dark- ness. "Thank you, Peter. Just a minute . . ."
The minute past, and another, and another. Finch could hear Diana's teeth chattering; could feel tears, uncontrollable tears, welling into his own eyes. Impul- sively, she reached for his hand, and squeezed it, and they both turned round, with their backs to the theatre,
Finch and Vivien Leigh on a Ceylon beach
between shots bf "Elephant Walk."
The Success Story of Peter Finch
and stood there stiffly, hand in-hand, like naughty child- ren in school. Behind them the voices whispered and papers rustled. Ten minutes passed.
"Peter Finch!" Suddenly a rich, beautiful voice called from the darkness,, a voice he had never heard before.
He turned. A woman was leaning on the orchestra rail, looking up at him. "My name is Edith Evans,"- she said. "I shall be seeing you at rehearsal on Tuesday. And how delighted I am!"
That was all. He blinked back his tears and looked for Olivier, but Olivier had al- ready gone in the darkness out the front door.
Then began the rehearsals, nerve-racking rehearsals . . . Olivier, who had staked much on this first of his London productions, was as nervous as the rest; so ner- vous that on the night of the final dress rehearsal he mumbled fearfully to the cast: "Take it in your stride: 1 think I've made a mis- take!"
And then opening night the biggest and most glitter- ing West End opening night since before the war, with everybody there: the first first night for nine years when everybody dressed up formally, when jewels were out, and orchids. And a young, unknown Australian who had known Sydney's dole queues and the slums of Woolloomooloo playing opposite one of the two greatest living actresses.
The curtain went up . . .