Alec Guinness, born 100 years ago today

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Alec Guinness as Colonel Nicholson, the role that won him an Oscar, in The Bridge on the River Kwai.

Was there ever a better British character actor than Alec Guinness?

Forget, for the moment, the interstellar impact of Star Wars and its sequels and think back to his start in the 1940s. Back then it was David Lean who saw the promise of this young man with the strangely blank face. In the ’50s Guinness was the original invisible man in films such as The Mudlark, The Card, Father Brown and, of course, his run of Ealing comedies.

He deservedly won an Academy Award for his misdirected officer in The Bridge on the River Kwai and through the ’60s cropped up as more camouflaged characters – Arabs, Germans, Italians, British charlatans. Stars like Trevor Howard (who I adored, by the way) always brought a touch of Trevor Howard to whatever they did. Ditto James Mason, who slid from leading man status to supporting artiste. Guinness was all of the above and none of them.

Today marks the centenary of this remarkable man’s birth. I met him only once, and then briefly. In 1996 he was on tour with his memoir My Name Escapes Me and appeared at the West Yorkshire Playhouse to give a reading. Afterwards he signed my book and we exchanged a few words. Colleagues who met and interviewed Guinness said he was charming but elusive. He didn’t give too much away. And for that I salute him.

We shouldn’t know too much about our actors. They should be seen but not recognised, content to hide behind the mask they are wearing. Blank, like an unpainted canvas. Anonymous, like Alec Guinness.

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