Audio books

1st September 2000 at 01:00
BLESSINGS IN DISGUISE. MY NAME ESCAPES ME. A POSITIVELY FINAL APPEARANCE. By Alec Guinness. Penguin. Pounds 8.99 (cassette) and Pounds 9.99 (CD) each

Positively final? No, positively posthumous, but full marks to Penguin for recording this dear, talented, self-effacing actor's journals while he was still in good voice. Only the first is approximately chronological: the others, written between 1985 and 1998, hop about in time as Guinness makes his own connections among the events of hisfascinating life.

Blessings in Disguise charts his childhood (he was born in 1914) and the unnerving discovery of his illegitimacy: his father's identity remained a haunting mystery to the end of his days. Guinness also recalls John Gielgud's kindness at a time when his acting career was still in doubt, and talks evocatively of his horrifying experiences as a naval officer in the Italian campaign in the Second World War.

He was 32 when David Lean cast him as the lovably scatty Herbert Pocket in the best film version ever made of Great Expectations. Lean had spotted Guinness when he played that role in a small London stage production for which Guiness himself had written the script. When Lean mooted Oliver Twist as his next film project, Guinness begged to play Fagin, and when Lean doubted his capacity he disappeared and re-emerged in such convincing make-up that the argument was conceded. At this point Lean - and the world - realised that Guinness could play anything: he drove the point home with Kind Hearts and Coronets and a string of Ealing comedies.

The blessing in his private life was his serenely happy marriage to Merula Salaman; the temporary sadness was the fact that their son had polio, which led Guiness to vow that he would convert to Catholicism if he recovered. When the boy did, both parents embraced the faith.

Not for nothing was Guinness sometimes known as The Man Without a Face - that was why he was so perfectly cast in the BBC's Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy - and his narrative tone is direct and unaffected. But he has a sharp eye for comedy as his later chapters prove: apropos Noel Coward's habit of seating himself at his hosts' pianos, Guinness recalls Humphrey Bogart slapping Coward on the shoulder and growling: "Shut up! We had enough of you last week. "

Guinness loathed his celebrated role in Star Wars, but was glad of the cash it brought. He loved nature, animals, bird and plant life, and hated the aches and creaks of old age. No actor better deserved his Oscars, one of which was awarded for advancing the art of screen acting through a host of memorable and distinguished performances.

Betty Tadman

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