Paul T Davies reviews ‘Dearest Squirrel’ The Intimate Letters of John Osborne and Pamela Lane, edited by Peter Whitebrook, published by Oberon Books.
‘Dearest Squirrel’ The Intimate Letters of John Osbourne and Pamela Lane. Edited by Peter Whitebrook.
Publisher: Oberon Books.
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The “original” Angry Young Man, John Osbourne, has an indelible place in British theatre history, writing his breakthrough play Look Back In Anger in 1956, and ushering a new wave of theatre and playwrights that challenged the system and broke the drawing room mould that had been firmly established. Pamela Lane was his first wife; they were married in 1951 and separated three years later. Their marriage, which fell apart while they were both young, struggling actors, was the template for Look Back in Anger, and one of the revealing things about this collection of letters is to understand just how autobiographical that play is. He went on the be lauded as an important writer, until he fell out of favour, while she continued to work, and struggle, in regional theatre, yet a highly regarded actress. But soon after their divorce, the couple began writing to each other, keeping in contact, and developing a growing intimacy and friendship that lasted until his death.
The strength of Whitebrook’s editing is his authorative summaries between the letters, and there we have not just a chronicle of a relationship, but of theatre itself, the changes that can sweep a person to huge fame and fortune, and then move on when that writer falls out of favour. But it also records the punishing life of a working actress, of the repertory system and of regional theatre. I became fascinated by Pamela Lane, not just because of her relationship with Osbourne, but her struggles. Lauded in regional theatre, London critics never reviewed her as, in those days, there was no national coverage, and she was often not mentioned in reviews when she did perform in London. How she must have felt at the Royal Court, watching Mary Ure performing, in essence, her, and her marriage being recreated on that stage, we can only speculate, but your heart goes out to her. Truth is, she came to rely on Osbourne both finically and emotionally, and his generosity is surprising, along with his rants which we would expect from him. She kept on working, and surviving, as much as she could, and she outlived not just Osbourne but his four successive wives.
Reading how his fame began to move away from him is fascinating, with Martin Esslin stating, “Thus do the angry young men of 1956 turn into the Edwardian high Tories of 1968” as Osbourne’s work became perceived of having a more right wing bias. He made a fortune and lost it, never regaining his earlier successes. But the letters reveal many more sides of him than his anger. Whist he clearly was cheating on his wife by still seeing Pamela during the 1980s, his support and understanding towards her is revelatory, perhaps the real tragedy is that they were each other’s one true love.
The whole collection is dealt with sympathetically, and records fresh light onto a theatrical figure that many of us thought we had summarised. Her letters are a record of survival, of love and affection, and, at times, great tenacity. Fascinating.