Die hard but live harder

Referencing Anthony Minghella’s oddly profound comedy of bereavement Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), the title bestowed on Alan Rickman’s diaries – by publisher or editor – throws us quite literally in the deep end. For there was something oddly profound about Rickman as an actor, too. Why odd? Because profundity involves depth, and it is too easy, even for fans (like me), to delight in his brilliance and to imagine that Deeply might have little part to play in the creation of unforgettable characters such as Hans Gruber (Die Hard1988), the Sheriff of Nottingham (Robin Hood: Prince of thieves1991), Severus Snape from the Harry Potter movies or Alexander Dane from the justifiably celebrated sci-fi meta-parody Galaxy Quest (1999).

These lighter roles, however, always exist on the screen as fully formed and utterly human, not cheaply caricatured. When fighting The Winter Guesta film he directed in 1997, Rickman notes in his diary that a radio interviewer “risks garroting” by opening her questions with “’Usually you play …'”.

One of the discoveries of these diaries is quite how irate Rickman was made by easy acting choices and lazy typecasting. In a production of The Glass Menagerie, directed by Sam Mendes, everything is too smoothly accomplished and the actors remain unchallenged, so the production “passes before our eyes masquerading as the real thing”. Emma Thompson, whom he spends a lot of time admiring, and who provides a short preface to the diaries, “needs to work with someone who will ask her to dig rather than skim”. That “ask” is interesting too. There are plenty of occasions in these diaries when Rickman is infuriated by the rudeness of directors towards actors and crew, especially the tendency to prioritize “getting shots” rather than working with the actors towards a good performance within those shots. A diary entry for 1995, while filming Rasputin, finds the director’s bad manners impossible to ignore. “‘Move her quicker…’” “‘Her’ name is Elena”, Rickman retorts, “she’s been with us from the beginning. LEARN HER NAME!!!”

In fact, rudeness is called out everywhere by Rickman, from overattentive waiters through unsupportive friends, cowardly producers, blank or boisterous audiences, and even a prissy tailor. He himself is obviously quite difficult to work with – full of certainty about the proceses of acting, rehearsing and filming – and he notes, if obliquely, plenty of fights. What he sees (and we admire) as directness, professionalism and honesty is seen by others as obstructive temperamentalism.

On August 20, 1998, embarking on a production of Antony and CleopatraRickman notes that “Sean [Mathias] handles rehearsals beautifully.” On October 17, by the first matinee, Mathias appears to have lost his equanimity, addressing Rickman thus: “‘Would it hurt you to show some fucking charm?'”

He sounds like a nightmare at times, yet it is impossible not to take his side and to find every sigh of frustration endearing. Typically entertaining is this entry from 2010, while filming the final Harry Potter movie: “The strangest feeling – giving vent to Snape’s emotions after years of snappy aloofness. Not funny to have the scene interrupted (without a ‘sorry’, of course). ‘You don’t mind, do you?’ ‘Yes, I do.’ ‘Oh – well don’t be like that.’ ‘You asked if I minded.’ ‘Yes, well I realise now that was my mistake.’

A lot of frustration is recorded in these pages, but, despite our hopes, Rickman does not use his diaries to pour out hidden desires or fears. There are no reflective sequences on the art and craft of acting. There is no playing to the gallery, either – none of the eloquent tirades of Kenneth Williams or Simon Gray. Rickman is more of a listener than a raconteur – lapping up Rod Steiger’s stories on one memorable flight to LA – and he is astonished and upset by what he calls the “lack of curiosity” that others, especially actors, have for people other than themselves . Despite the extraordinary number of A-list names that cascade down every page, this is not a repository of celebrity gossip, either. It is as if the discretion that is evidently characterized by Rickman’s behavior in public extended to his private thoughts.

Those looking for insights behind the scenes of Harry Potter, for instance, will find thin pickings. These big projects are feats of engineering, so there is a lot of unproductive standing around (“Running in, pointing a wand … monumental waste of energies”). There are anecdotes. But it is often as if we are sitting at a nearby table and can’t quite catch what is being said. Ruby Wax was “achingly funny” at dinner; “Imelda [Staunton] makes us weep with laughter at the stories of dope scones”; “[Meryl Streep] is truly a force of nature. Really informed – even if you don’t agree with the information”; “Much unmissable chat between Maggie [Smith] and Michael [Gambon] about days at the NT, Olivier, Coward, Edith Evans”. Do tell! But no, he doesn’t. And those who do are named: “Frances Barber on devastating form with tales of Chichester life – NB never divulge anything to her that you do not want spread like soft margarine. Even she had to stop Imogen Stubbs with a warning hand when Imogen had started a sentence with ‘Strictly entre nous …’”.

This discretion raises the obvious question: why did Rickman keep these diaries at all? They are, in effect, lightly expanded appointment diaries, the unadorned record of a working life (with plenty of lunches and dinners thrown in). In a few references within the diaries, Rickman does not seem at all sure what he is trying to achieve. Quite possibly it was material for future memoir-writing, or simply for end-of-year accounting. (It seems to read, or at least flick through, the diaries at the end of each year.)

Unfortunately, little help is offered by the editor, Alan Taylor. He tells us that from 1992 Rickman started to keep a page-a-day diary and he reproduces several extracts from them, which are illustrated with remarkable color drawings, boldly stretching around the entries to fill the page. (The absence of these atmospheric – often beautiful – pictures, along with the drama of Rickman’s handwriting, feels like a significant loss of “voice”, reduced as the diary is to dull printed conformity.) There are, apparently, twenty-six volumes , although, given that Rickman’s last diary was from 2015, I can’t make the maths work.

Taylor informs us that his edition is a distillation of more than a million words, yet he tells us nothing of how he chose what to include and gives no indication of where things have been left out. Given Rickman’s predilection for courtesy, it is startling to find his editor admitting: “we do not know whether Alan would like to have seen his published diaries”. I suppose the publication has the imprimatur of Rima Horton, Rickman’s lifelong partner, whom he clearly adored and trusted, and who provides a heartbreaking couple of pages at the end of the diaries to describe Rickman’s last months, when writing was beyond him. He died of pancreatic cancer on January 14, 2016, and it seems to have been recognizably Alan Rickman right up to the end.

The note-to-self nature of these working diaries means that information is often sparse, and a few more contextual details from the editor might have helped. (What were the legal wranglings about Die Hard 3, for instance?) A lot of parts are turned down by Rickman – there are more nos than yeses here – but the amount of work is nevertheless amazing, more than thirty productions (stage and screen) in less than twenty-five years. A distinct advantage of the brevity of Rickman’s entries is that the reader gets a real sense of the rhythms of his working life.

He is forever on the move. Unsurprisingly, many entries feature exhaustion, severe pain, jet lag and hangovers. There are moments of relaxation, but he seems ill suited to an empty day and uninterested in self-pity or prolonged self-analysis. There is, however, a lot of brief, sharp analysis and judgment of others. Rickman spends many nights watching plays and films. His “reviews” – often just a line – are the best things in these diaries. The most common fault appears to be good actors going wrong, or cruising, under bad or thoughtless directors.

There is praise as well as criticism – he enthuses about Janet McTeer, Helen Mirren, Isabelle Huppert – but it’s the criticisms, with the insights of an experienced insider, that are worth pausing over. On Simon Russell Beale in Tom Stoppard’s play Jumpers: “I wish someone would tell him not to be so lovable. It’s like he needs a smack rather than a director.” On The Iceman Cometh: “Kevin Spacey is the acting equivalent of a champion surfer. He makes everyone else look effortful. Even if he also carries a slightly self-satisfied air.” Rickman is always an engaged and intelligent observer – you can’t ask for more than that. Not that his “help” was always appreciated: “Stephen Poliakoff’s new play. Absolutely accosted by Stephen in the foyer with instructions that I was not to give notes to his actresses.”

One area where we might regret Rickman’s reserve is in his account of rehearsals for stage plays (Antony and Cleopatra with Helen Mirren, Private Lives with Lindsay Duncan, John Gabriel Borkman with Fiona Shaw). These were clearly stressful and rewarding processes, and it would have been interesting to read about them in more detail.

In the end, however, the ways in which Alan Rickman is an inept or unforthcoming diarist are indicative of what was so impressive about the man. The entries are so brief because the life was busy being lived. Fully, openly, joyfully – truly, madly and, yes, deeply – he put his energies into the present moment, which means that our disappointment as readers is one more reason to celebrate him. The inner man, if we’re looking, is there on the screen. Still, for fans, these supplementary diaries are a pure delight from start to unforgivably early finish.

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