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Maggie Fergusson remembers Ronald Harwood

Maggie Fergusson

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Ronald Harwood, who died in 2020, was Chair of the RSL from 2001–04.

Time spent working with Ronnie was always a double tonic. First, he exuded an appetite for life. Then, he was predisposed to like everyone he met. He assumed they would like him too: ‘It’s never occurred to me that anyone could dislike me,’ he once confessed to me, during a long conversation about his life and work. ‘It’s probably very unattractive, in a way. But it’s to do with my mother’s love. She instilled in me absolute confidence in myself.’

And what confidence! In 1951, aged seventeen, Harwood sailed into Southampton from South Africa, alone. He carried with him £7, a letter of introduction to a rabbi in Upper Berkeley Street, and a dream of making a life in the theatre. By the end of his life, a shelf in his booklined study in Kensington was crammed with tributes to his dream-come-true: a bafta (for The Diving Bell and the Butterfly), an Evening Standard Best Play Award (for The Dresser) and the Stefan Mitrov Ljubiša Award for his contribution to European literature and human rights. Glowing amidst them all was the Oscar, won for the screenplay of The Pianist in 2002. Within twelve hours of his getting it, his agent had received 24 offers of work, at fees Harwood would previously only have dreamed of.

Harwood’s good nature was rare and beguiling, but there was a great deal more to him than rollicking bonhomie. The last time he had a play on in London, it was both a critical and a box-office disaster. The reviews of Mahler’s Conversion were so savage that he was plunged into depression and writer’s block. Every morning, as he settled down in his study to write, he found himself ‘facing a chasm’: ‘I was unable to access that part of myself that is the most profound. I was unable to do what Maggie Smith calls “dredging”.’

His depression was fuelled by a sense that, as a Jew, he had never really ‘belonged’ in England, though he also felt that England had been wonderful to him. His life was rich in indicators of English success: children at public schools, a house in the country, friendship with the Prince of Wales, membership of the Garrick. But the notion of belonging or not belonging is, he said, one that the English cannot understand, ‘because they belong’. And, for all England’s generosity to him, ‘I am not allowed to forget that I’m a foreigner.’

By the time he arrived from South Africa in the 1950s, Harwood’s roots were already well obscured. His rich, plummy, actorly voice had been acquired partly by pressing his ear to the radiogram every day after school to listen to a 78 record of Laurence Olivier reading Hamlet, and partly from an elocution teacher, Sybil Marks (who had also taught Nigel Hawthorne). The name Harwood had been contrived for him by his English master. He was born Ronald Horwitz, ‘but when I was thinking of coming overseas, to act, it was thought that one couldn’t have a foreign name.’ ‘Foreign, or Jewish?’ ‘Jewish, I suppose. Though it wasn’t put like that. And Mr Quinn said, “Harwood will do.”’
Yet one only has to look at his plays to see how the business of roots, and of identity, preoccupied him. Collaboration examines the artistic partnership between the composer Richard Strauss (played by Michael Pennington) and the Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig (David Horovitz) in the lead-up to the Second World War. Zweig was a Jew, and the struggle to separate his artistic aspirations and his political beliefs drove him, ultimately, to suicide. Strauss was a quisling. Was Zweig the hero, then? Curiously not. Harwood felt deeply for Strauss, whose cooperation very likely saved his Jewish daughter-in-law and grandchildren from Auschwitz. But the abandonment of hope was beyond his comprehension, and for Zweig he felt contempt.
In Taking Sides, Hitler’s favourite conductor, Wilhelm Furtwängler (Pennington), is tried after the war as a Nazi sympathiser. He is an artistic genius, whereas his American interrogator, Steve Arnold (Horovitz), is a bully and a philistine. Yet Arnold has witnessed at first hand the horror of Belsen. In the face of that, what argument can Furtwängler make for the healing power of his art? Here are the Harwood hallmarks: near-obsession with moral dilemma and with what it means to be a Jew.
A part of him, he admitted, would have loved to brush the whole Jewish thing under the carpet. ‘I remember saying to Isaiah Berlin, “I am sick of anti-Semitism.” He said, “Ronnie, you mustn’t be, it defines you as a Jew.” I think he was right.’
Yet despite his roots, his devotion to England was passionate. Arriving in London at seventeen – a city of ‘willowherb growing out of bomb craters, and an atmosphere of unity and embrace’ – he fell in love with it. He loved England’s sense of fair play, and its institutions. He worried when ‘politicians tinker with the head of state, the monarchy, the judiciary, taking more and more power to themselves’.
Yet those tempted to pigeonhole Harwood as right wing should look to his record as a campaigner for human rights. His early writing was devoted to fighting against apartheid, and in favour of freedom of speech. In 1986, he put his life in danger to make a film about Mandela, still imprisoned on Robben Island and largely unknown.
But it was the Holocaust that most haunted him. In 1946, with other Jewish schoolchildren, he was taken to a showing of film footage from Belsen. ‘It was…unbelievable. I had nightmares. And it was absolutely central to my development as a person.’ All this resurfaced powerfully when, preparing to work on The Pianist, Ronald Harwood and Roman Polanski spent time together watching reels of previously unseen SS film of Nazi treatment of the Jews. ‘It was terrible – worse than the film from Belsen. We watched all day, and then went out for a huge dinner, and drank too much. We never talked about it, because it was unbearable. And I said to Roman, “You know this is what started me off: seeing this as a child.”’
But self-pity was not a part of Harwood’s nature, and he was grateful to his Jewish heritage for giving him a sense of rootedness and equanimity. ‘Jews walk a tightrope between this world and the next very comfortably,’ he said. ‘They are good at this world, but they have a spiritual dimension too. I enjoy this world, but I also have another dimension.’ He explored this dimension by making retreats with his Catholic wife, Natasha, at the Benedictine Abbey of Ampleforth in Yorkshire, getting up at 5am for Matins.
Was he afraid of death, I asked him? ‘I think about it, but I’m not afraid of it. If I’ve led a decent life, I’ve no reason to fear it. It’s part of my confidence, I suppose.’
Ronald Harwood, who died in 2020, was Chair of the RSL from 2001–04