Kevin Spacey leads tributes to theatre pioneer Peter Glenville

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Darling of Broadway will be celebrated on his centenary

This November, London’s theatrical elite will come together to celebrate one of the its late, great pioneers.

Peter Glenville was born in Hampstead almost 100 years ago and rose to become one of the most influential film and theatre directors of his day.

A foundation in his name has since been established, dedicated to supporting artistic endeavours of all kinds – as well as the Peter Glenville Theatre in New York – the city in which he died in 1996.

Kevin Spacey, artistic director of The Old Vic, says: “I find it incredibly moving that Peter Glenville, who gained experience of his craft as director of The Old Vic in exile in Liverpool during the war, and then had success on Broadway and in film, should have chosen to invest his legacy in the next generation.

“The foundation’s support of The Old Vic inspires and encourages us all at the theatre because it chimes brilliantly with our own commitment to mentoring the next generation of young actors, writers, directors and producers.”

Glenville’s life was incredibly far-flung but began in north London. His mother, Dorothy Ward, came from a family of pub owners and his father, Shaun Glenville, was from Dublin.

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Together they rose to become two of the greatest pantomime stars of their day. Glenville and Ward’s double act of singing, dancing, cross-dressing and “he’s behind you’s” pulled Britain through two world wars and were well-remembered as Glenville grew up.

He was therefore immersed in theatre from a young age and, though a degree in law from Christ Church, Oxford, was the path he initially mapped out for himself, the university’s dramatic society soon wrenched him from the legal profession and, in 1934, he became its president.


His early career led him into parts as diverse as Marlowe’s Edward II and Mephistopheles, Shakespeare’s Romeo, Puck, Hamlet, Petruchio and Richards II and III, before turning to more modern productions.

However, according to biographer Carol King, Glenville was wise to eventually abandon his acting career. “He was never a great actor, though he could have made a living as one, but he clearly wanted more than just a living.”

While still a relatively young man, he stepped behind the curtain in the early 1940s to begin directing and was appointed director of the Old Vic Company in 1944, the original site of which had been badly bombed during the Blitz.

His Broadway debut came five years later, with a production of Terence Rattigan’s The Browning Version. From this time onwards, he was responsible for a string of acclaimed shows – notably Aldous Huxley’s The Giaconda Smile and William Archibald’s The Innocents, based on Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw.

He rose up through a variety of theatres: Piccadilly, Haymarket, Hammersmith, Liverpool and New York.

Rattigan and Tennessee Williams seem to have been personal favourites of Glenville’s, with their common themes of thwarted or forbidden love, macabre humour and addiction.

However, by far his greatest success on Broadway was Jean Anouilh’s Becket in 1960, which starred Laurence Olivier as the eponymous archbishop. This was followed by an equally successful film adaptation, also directed by Glenville, and starring Richard Burton in the lead role.

After the end of the Second World War, Glenville met Hardy William Smith, a fellow thespian who would go on to produce shows around London.

He and Glenville began a relationship and remained together for the rest of their lives.

It is unsurprising, perhaps, to find Glenville so drawn to the works of Williams, in particular, whose writing so often bristles with conflicting ideas of masculinity and male behaviour.

“Glenville’s last work in Britain was in 1970, so if his name doesn’t ring bells instantly it’s because he was mainly a Broadway director in his later years,” says Martyn Auty, event curator, “and because he quit while he was ahead and could enjoy more than 20 years of star-studded retirement in his adoptive home of the USA – the darling of the Manhattan set.

“Glenville was much loved in Theatreland and in Hollywood. Having been an actor himself – a matinee idol indeed – he was an actor’s director par excellence. Among those who knew what a true director should be like, his name was spoken with acclaim and admiration. That he should leave a foundation to support future directors is a mark of a great man.”

Although nominated for a variety of awards – an Oscar and two Golden Globes – he never quite received the recognition of his contemporaries.

The Old Vic’s decision to virtually dedicate November to the former Hampstead resident is testament to what he left behind – for present-day and future drama – at a time when the artists of this country desperately need such support.