The passing of Sir Alec Guinness may for many signal the true ending of the twentieth
century; he was the last 'great' of the British theatre, along with Olivier, Gielgud
His career spanned 66 years and encompassed roles as diverse as Shakespeare and Star
Wars. Guinness was able to immerse himself in a character so effortlessly that the
critic J G Trewin once remarked that 'he had a players countenance, designed for
whatever turned up'.
Born illegitimately on 2 April 1914 in Marylebone, London Alec Guinness never knew
the identity of his real father and admitted that 'the source of his identity has
been my constant speculation for 50 years'. Nevertheless his mysterious father provided
for his schooling and on leaving education Guinness joined Arks Publicity, Advertising
Agents as a copywriter.
He used most of his salary to buy theatre tickets and no doubt inspired by what he
saw, paid for a course of acting lessons at the Fay Compton School of Acting. At
the end of term he was judged the winning pupil by John Gielgud.
Gielgud encouraged his budding theatrical career and cast him as Orsic in his 1934
production of Hamlet. A role Guinness reprised in Olivier's 1937 production, as well
as understudying Olivier.
The War interrupted his career and he joined the Royal Navy as a rating in 1941.
At the end of the fighting he rejoined the Old Vic and played Menenius in a 1948
production of Corialanus at the New Theatre.
However it was in the emerging film industry where he found popular acclaim; in the
classic black comedy from the Ealing Studios, Kind Hearts and Coronets
. He played all members of the d'Ascoyne
family from the ferocious suffragette Aunt Edith to the blustering General. He described
the role as ' eight speaking parts, one non-speaking cameo and a portrait in oils'.
Further successes with Ealing followed; The Man in the White Suit (1951), The Lavender Hill Mob
and The Ladykillers
(1955) . During a break from filming he had a triumphant summer season in 1953
at the Stratford Festival in Toronto, Canada playing Richard 111 and Alls Well That