I stood there, shaking, as Sir Alec Guinness moved down the long glass corridor fronting the house he built, slowly moving his bulk across two old legs and equally old cane, my lungs emptying outside as he neared the door inside. Every step forward doubled my heartbeat, legs as jelly in an earthquake. Hundreds – thousands – of Star Wars viewings simultaneously slammed into the part of my brain that is in exclusive control of my ability to scream. Mouth, dry, denying that request the best it could. Don’t call him Obi-Wan was my silently repeated mantra, on loop for the past few days. Finally, the door clunked, and swung open.
“Hello”, he said. The sky fell into my chest.
“Hello. These are for your wife”, said seventeen-year-old me. The flowers I held out vibrated in the still country air.
Now, this is where that part of my memory stops – or, at least, the searing is not as deep – but I’m sure the words he used were as kind and generous as each of his words he spoke to me over the next couple of years, all voiced in his deep velvet voice regardless of whether they were spoken or written. I know that I followed him in, walking slightly behind as we moved back into the house, his wife aglow on receiving my gift. He sat me down at his table and brought me tea.
“Now,” he said. “What do you want to know?”
I grew up in Petersfield, a retirement town (now bustling London commute haven) an hour south of Waterloo station. It’s a typical Hampshire market community – central square, pubs with ale on tap, ivy over old stone, pavements too thin for people, churches and newsagents and swathes of green and blue. There is a rhythm to life here, and it can be a good one. Its nature has always made it an obvious choice for families to raise their young and for older people looking to retire, which led to me grow up next to Sir Alec Guinness.
He was always ancient. We both went to the same church but at different times; my family went at 11am, he and his wife at 6pm. The morning mass is louder, longer, full of songs and sung platitudes. The evening mass, though, is a much quieter affair, with the outside twilight creeping in through the permanently cool stone walls. It was here that I would occasionally see him, hunched and silent on the left pews while I sat wide-eyed on the right. It’s worth noting that, to me, Sir Alec was the one thing that he’d always hated being remembered for – Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, Jedi Knight and teacher to Luke Skywalker. It’s not so easy separating fiction from reality when you’re so young, especially as every time Star Wars appeared on our TV my brother and I would line up our entire figure collection to tick off as they appeared. I memorised the lines from Star Wars before my times tables. So you can imagine, then, the look on this young boy’s face as the hum of the priest’s voice faded into the background and the dim light all pointed to Obi-Wan Kenobi, there, now. My knowledge of his incredible body of work didn’t come until much, much later, and by that time it was too late.
However, as much as I revered him for Star Wars, I was quickly informed that he didn’t feel the same. In fact, he felt distinctly the opposite. Petersfield was a place where people talked about you but would leave you alone, and I think this is exactly what he wanted. I did stop him for a signature once after waiting patiently outside the church service. He signed a dog-eared novelisation of The Empire Strikes Back for me, and I remember he had a real soft kindness about the whole affair, but it didn’t happen again. Also, it was a bit weird – our church community was regular and small, so it was a bit like asking a family friend for an autograph. I saw him many times again over the next few years as I careered into young adulthood, and even though I started taking his presence more for granted, the sense of wonder never really left.
Of course, this was before our family priest found out that I was interested in getting into acting.
I was seventeen and face down in University applications, but unsure as to whether it was the right path. I’d caught the acting bug a few years earlier and was completely focused on becoming an actor (and now you can see me on Netflix. Take that, career adviser). My route to this, though, was firmly split in two. Either I gambled on university and put myself through an expensive three years that could lead to nothing, or I moved to London at eighteen and worked my way up taking whatever theatre roles I could grab (at that time, that was a less ridiculous-sounding prospect as it is now). It was an ongoing discussion that floated up from me, to my parents, to our priest, and onwards.
I was working on something upstairs when my mother took a phone call. Her voice shifted into ultra-high register, then she came upstairs.
“It’s Alec Guinness on the phone. For you.”
Firmer now, through tiger smile, as if the phone receiver had suddenly become a Telescreen through which our actions could be judged.
“It’s Alec Guinness. On the phone. For you. Now.” Answer. The. Phone. Eyes sending signals through carefully chosen words.
“Oh. Oh. OK.” The walk downstairs is another part of this experience that I remember distinctly. Step, step, step. Breathe, breathe, breathe.
“Hello!” My voice was is presentation mode.
“Hello, Simon.” That’s my name. He said my name. “Father tells me that you’re thinking of becoming an actor. I was wondering if you’d like to come over and ask me some questions.”
I’ll let you picture my face at the moment Sir Alec Guinness offered to give me some acting advice.
I accepted, of course. A week later I was on my bike, shirt and tie and shined shoes, skimming through the beautiful Hampshire countryside towards his home. I was far too early, so I stood in a field for a bit, looking out over the hills and wondering what the hell I was about to do. Exactly on time, I wobbled up to his front door and pressed the doorbell. The inner door opened and the long glass corridor framed him beautifully.
It was a disaster, of course, but he was patient to a fault. The confidence I have now is a fairly recent addition, a cloak I can throw around myself with precision after many years of rehearsal. Back then, though, it hardly existed, and I laid out my conundrum to him in fits and breaths. I was clutching something the whole time – the tea cup, I think – to stop my eyes exploding from wide-eyed dilation. He gave me two pieces of advice, the first being that I should go to University – It’ll teach me things I can fall back on, and it’s always good to have an education (he was totally right, of course). The second I still find hilarious, due to it’s pitch-perfect comedy timing. As I sat there, panting explanations of becoming an actor, he suggested I take some voice and breathing lessons. The voice is important for the actor, he told me. It helps if you have one, he was far too kind to point out. I followed both pieces of advice and they have shaped everything I’ve done since.
And the sting in this tale, at least for me, is that his interest didn’t stop there. In my first year of University, just as my eyes were being opened and mind being blown by invention and possibility, he wrote to me. Twice, I think, maybe even three times. He wrote as he was genuinely interested in my experience and development at University. I don’t remember exactly what they said, but I remember the tone clearly – kind, sincere, curious, calm. Maybe he wanted to make sure that his advice had been accurate. All it would have taken was a single reply and there could have been genuine ongoing correspondence.
I never wrote back.
I often wonder why, exactly, but I think I know the answer. My first year of University was a barrage of new ideas and emotions, my first time away from home in a compact campus nestled deep in a Welsh valley with a thousand other young people. My concentration span has always been notoriously resistant to outside influence, and I’m pretty sure I just put it off. There was a million things I would do before sitting down to write a letter. Arrogance, laziness, single-mindedness, call it what you want. Remember, for me, Sir Alec Guinness was always in that “family friend” slot more than global acting legend, and I just didn’t prioritise his ongoing interest nearly as high as the shiny fireworks happening every day right in front of my nose. I always meant to reply, but time disappeared in a blur of classes and plays and parties and people and events.
Sir Alec Guinness died on August 5th 2000, near one of my schools, his wife following soon afterwards. I’d been out of University for a few years, acting in plays and working terrible jobs with dreams of becoming a film director. His death was the punchline to a joke that was never funny to begin with, my ignorance of his attempts at communication just one of many regrets still floating around from the three years of my BA degree. This shock of opportunity ending, of the moment to say sorry having passed by forever, led me to examine his life anew, moving past the family friend to explore the man underneath. I’d known about a few classics from his past, Bridge On The River Kwai‘s regular Christmas TV slot ensuring that, but suddenly there was The Ladykillers and Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence Of Arabia and The Lavender Hill Mob amongst a filmography that was amazing in its variation and quality. Suddenly the man I’d known just for Obi-Wan, BAFTA winner, Oscar winner, revealed this history that marked him as one of the greatest actors who’s ever performed. His estate still funds a yearly award to pay for the education of a new, up-and-coming actor. I watched him get older, I knew he was slowing moving back down that long glass corridor, but I couldn’t even return a letter.
In a way, it’s good, though. It has to be. Luck has regularly thrown me a favourable hand in my life, and even though my focus is still always pointed firmly forwards instead of noticing the side aims, I’ve become much better at grabbing the opportunities as they fly slowly past. Or, at least, I try to be better. Sir Alec Guinness was born 100 years ago yesterday and didn’t just give me the advice that would end up forming my life’s path, but also gave me something in his death; a reminder that time runs out, and you should never leave it to tomorrow to say thank you.