Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World

Author(s): Robert Sellers
Publisher: Preface Publishing
Pages: 448
ISBN: 9781848092976
ASIN: 1848092970
Release Date: 12th May 2011


The late fifties and the early sixties heralded a seismic change in society; the country was coming out of the post war austerity years of rationing and 'making do', the advent of rock and roll music was hitting our shores and empowering the country's youth hitherto overlooked and marginalised. At the same time a new brigade of writers, tired of the upper-middle class french-windows and tennis club plays written by the likes of Terence Rattigan and Noel Coward, were exploring working class issues and relationship politics.

These playwrights such as Harold Pinter, John Osbourne and Shelagh Delaney were fighting the Lord Chancellor who was effectively a state censor. Each play had to be authorised by the Lord Chancellor before it could be performed (this rule remaining in place until 1968), and furthermore his minions were dispatched to individual performances of plays during their runs to prevent them from being organically changed since their initial authorisation. This new brand of play required a new type of actor, a type of actor that was not constrained by the use of received pronunciation and the starchy techniques taught by institutions such as RADA.

At the same time actors who became imbued in the public psyche as hard-drinking womanising hellraisers were making a name for themselves in repertory theatre. The likes of Peter O'Toole, Richard Harris and Robert Shaw were formidable theatre actors who frequently shocked and scandalised their troupes, yet even the most begrudging of their peers could see the sheer talent and charisma of these tyros. Other actors from the north of England, such as Alan Bates, Albert Finney and Tom Courteney, with their thick regional accents and point bank refusals to temper their brogues, were equally making a name for themselves.

It was therefore inevitable that these actors would make names for themselves in productions of A Taste of Honey, The Caretaker, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and Look Back in Anger during the late fifties and early sixties. Robert Sellers' book Don't Let the Bastards Grind You Down: How One Generation of British Actors Changed the World tells the tale of how this breed of actor, along with other luminaries such as Michael Caine, Terence Stamp and Sean Connery, became famous for their appearances in controversial new wave plays which in turn opened the door for cinema roles.

The book is written largely in chronological order, jumping around between the different actors' career trajectories and interweaving their interactions. The style of prose is pacey and littered with colloquialisms such as "he was rat-arsed' and 'he was a big bugger'. These are ill-chosen phrases which undermine the text and dilute the impact of Sellers' rhetoric. Furthermore, there is a lack of consistency on the actors Sellers has chosen to research. The thrust of the book follows O'Toole, Harris, Shaw, Finney, Bates, Courteney, Cain, Connery and Stamp. There is no explanation for the omission of Richard Burton (marginally older? Too Hollywood?) and Lawrence Harvey (Too middle-class and establishment?).

Presumably Sean Connery was included because of the fame and fortune that James Bond brought him; his theatrical performances were little more than a device to hone his movie star potential. He could not be considered one of the hard-living types such as O'Toole and Harris, and nor could he considered one of the immersive actors from the Finney, Courteney and Bates school. Equally strange is the selection of Terence Stamp, and Sellers here is guilty of 'bigging up' his contribution to that phalanx of new wave actors. Stamp was catapulted to star-status after his appearance in Modesty Blaise in 1966, and not after a largely forgotten and forgettable early foray in Billy Budd in 1962. Indeed, one can't help but wonder whether Stamp was selected for inclusion in Sellers' book purely because he and Caine were flatmates in the early sixties and turned their one bedroom flat into a den of iniquity.

Sellers doesn't take the trouble to define the parameters he has adopted thus promoting the idea it has been badly planned and structured. Nor does he explicitly explain how these actors 'Changed the World' with their actions. The book reads at times like a collection of loosely coupled anecdotes, indeed Sellers spends way too much time setting up these anecdotes - anecdotes that are frequently in common coinage already and will doubtless be familiar to the target demographic.

The book is a breezy and fun whistle-stop tour without any inclination towards academia or hard analysis. If that's all that is required, then it will be thoroughly enjoyed. I suspect however that most will consider this offering a colossal wasted opportunity.